Blue Mountains Food Co-Op in Katoomba

Walking the main drag of Katoomba on our two night getaway in the Blue Mountains, K and I came across a funky sign on the pavement, pointing the way down to the Blue Mountains Food Co-Op.

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A food co-op is a new concept for me, after having spent most of my life shopping at supermarkets, grocers, and stores where you pay good money to receive pre-packaged products from big brands. It’s always been about the marketing, the advertising, the colours on the packaging, and the opportunity to ‘win big prizes’ if you buy two or more boxes of cereal. After walking through the store and making a few purchases of flour and arborio rice, I am absolutely enchanted with the concept of going back to basics with a food co-op.

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Why keep buying new bottles of dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, shampoo or conditioner when you can re-use environmentally friendly bottles and simply refill from large communal containers, and pay for what you buy? All you need to do is add a few drops of essential oils to the mix for a nice fragrance, and it’s ready to go.

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Why buy produce that’s been wrapped in plastic and imported from other countries, when you can buy local and seasonal organic fruit and vegetables, picked and harvested only a day or two ago?

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Why buy snacks like chips and lollies when you can have nature’s own sweetness like dried papaya and mango, or a nut mix for snacking on during a long day at work? Simply bring in your Tupperware container or jar, and fill up with as much as you want, rather than being restricted to the pre-packaged sizes.

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Grains and legumes are the culinary basis of a “back to basics” approach to cooking and learning to appreciate food as it naturally appears. Stocking up on lentils, chickpeas, and dried beans can give you the basis of a wide variety of family-friendly meals.

What do you think of food co-ops? Do you take part in any, and do you have any tips for others who might be interested?

Review: HelloFresh Classic Box

I’ve tried produce boxes from Doorstep Organics and Bondi Fruitologist in recent months and am starting to consider myself a bit of a produce box aficionado – whatever that means! Continuing the trend, I got the chance to try a Hello Fresh Classic Box (three meals for two people) last week.

Hello Fresh is a produce box with a difference – rather than simply providing you with an assortment of fruit and vegetables and expecting you to come up with your own recipes, they provide you with everything you could need to create complete meals each night – recipe and ingredients.

It works really well, especially as it means that you don’t have to worry about having to buy additional ingredients every time you try cooking a new meal as long as you have some basics in the pantry (oil, salt, pepper, etc). This means you could save money on your grocery shop, as rather than buying a whole bag of onions, you are simply provided with the single onion you need for a recipe!

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All ingredients provided in the Hello Fresh classic box (three meals worth for two people)

My Hello Fresh box arrived promptly on Monday afternoon, and was waiting for me on my veranda when I got home. A great feature of the box is how careful they are with food safety – the cold items (chicken breast and beef mince) were stored carefully in a Styrofoam box for insulation. All the produce provided was incredibly fresh – and remained so up until Friday when I cooked my last meal. Also in the box was the recipe booklet – colourful, well designed and appealing.

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Apricot glazed chicken and cous cous salad (added figs)

This was the first meal I cooked out of the box, as the cous cous salad appealed to me the most. We use cous cous in our main meals quite often in place of rice, pasta, or other grains – I find that it doesn’t sit as heavily in my stomach after a meal! The simplicity of this salad was really great – cous cous, chickpeas, parsley and red onion with a squeeze of lemon juice. I will probably replicate it in the future, perhaps with the addition of slivered almonds or sultanas for an extra something!

I found that the chicken wasn’t glazed as much as it should have been, although I followed the recipe’s instructions to the letter. In the future, I would probably add to the apricot glaze with a spoonful or two of honey just to ensure that it glazes properly.

I added a fig and a half each to the plate when I plated up the meal, as I kept about half the salad for lunch the next day so portion sizes were smaller. The sweetness of the figs actually worked quite well with both the salad and the chicken.

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Vegetarian gong bao (added beef kebab)

For the next meal, I turned a perfectly lovely vegetarian dish into something not very vegetarian at all, by adding a beef kebab (courtesy of a local butcher) to each plate. I don’t have anything against purely vegetarian meals, however I simply wanted to save a portion of the rice and gong bao for lunch the next day, so needed to supplement what was left!

The gongbao was really delicious. Unfortunately the ‘vegetarian’ part of this meal was a bit boring, as mushrooms were all that were provided. In the future, I would probably replicate the sauce (delicious!), but perhaps add in extra elements like bamboo shoots and capsicum, simply for a change in texture and increased complexity. There was a real chilli punch to this dish, though we only used one bird’s eye chilli!

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Beef burger with beetroot relish (added mango salad)

This was probably the heartiest of all the meals I cooked, a real ‘get your hands dirty’ meal both in terms of the preparation and the consumption. I added a mango salad on the side (simply diced mango with mixed salad leaves with the juice of the mango as a dressing) as the beefiness of the burger was quite overwhelming.

Again, I altered the recipe slightly by adding cheese to the burger, not using all the beetroot relish (I saved half of it to go in a salad the next day), and by adding additional spices to the mince before I turned it into a patty. The final result was really well received by K, who really enjoyed the slight sweetness of the beetroot with the spice of the beef patty in the toasted bun.

Summary

The service is really perfect for the working couple or family with two working parents – who already have some culinary skills. The presumed knowledge in many of the recipes can be quite extensive, and someone who doesn’t know precisely how to prepare beetroot or slice ginger could get a crucial step in the process wrong.

I really enjoyed the meals in my Hello Fresh box. The only thing that stops us from signing up for a weekly service is our personal preference for meals that afford more in the way of leftovers, as we both take lunch to work. I had to work to add an extra element to the meal every night (e.g kebab, salad, figs) to ensure that we could save part of the meal for lunch the next day.

I also really enjoy meal planning and being creative with all the ingredients in my fridge – something that a pre-determined meal box from Hello Fresh doesn’t allow.

There are times though, where I can see us wanting the easy convenience of a Hello Fresh box. The week after we come back from holiday for example – when we haven’t yet had the chance to do a grocery shop to stock up our fridge. Or a week in which we both have extensive extracurricular study commitments or long days in the office, when thinking up a meal is the last thing we want to do at night. I can definitely see us making use of Hello Fresh on an occasional basis into the future.

I’m even thinking of buying a few weeks worth of boxes for my not-quite-mother-in-law as she has a lot of trouble learning how to cook meals for two people, after decades of feeding two sons who have since moved out of home. The controlled portions of Hello Fresh meals might just be the thing to help her learn how to cook for two!

I definitely recommend Hello Fresh for time-poor working professionals who still want the comforts of a home cooked meal and enjoy the process of cooking without the hassle of having to think up recipes or go grocery shopping! I award Hello Fresh an 8.5 out of 10 for freshness, business ingenuity, and diversity of recipes.

Note: I received the Classic Box from HelloFresh free of charge for review purposes. All words and opinions are my own.

Fresh Food Markets in South East Asia

If there’s one thing that most people don’t do well in developed countries like Australia, it’s embracing the glory of fresh food, straight from the ground. As a nation, we eat so much frozen, shrink-wrapped, boxed and over-packaged products from supermarkets that we forget what proper, fresh, straight-from-the-source food tastes like.

I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this myself. I live in a highly urban area, I work full time, and week-to-week, I don’t have the time to travel out of my way to go to a Farmer’s Market and buy my groceries straight from the source. I do what I can in trying to cut down my consumption of processed foods, but sometimes my love of pre-cut pre-seasoned potato wedges outweighs any ‘food miles’ ethics.

I really enjoyed experiencing the complete opposite lifestyle while I was travelling through South East Asia in December. The streets of Vietnam in particular, were particularly full of small farmers selling their home-grown produce.

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Aren’t the colours vibrant and the produce fresh? Walking through the market district of any Vietnamese city or town is a real delight, as you get confronted with the smells and sounds of housewives haggling over the cost of fresh produce for their evening meal.

You see butchers selling hunks of meat straight off a concrete slab, perhaps slaughtering a chicken right in front of you. You see a lady with a cage full of live frogs, decapitating and skinning them in one easy five second motion. You discover new produce that you wouldn’t normally find at home. It’s the type of really tangible and real market shopping that is very hard to find in Australia.

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K and I have tried to replicate some of the delicious fresh Vietnamese dishes that we had while we were overseas. We feel particularly virtuous and healthy when we make ourselves a Vietnamese salad, with a mix of fresh herbs, lettuce, bean sprouts, chillis and vermicelli noodles, with a squeeze of lime juice and fish sauce as a dressing. All fresh produce – but not the same quality as the produce we saw in Vietnam. We have a while to go before we reach that pinnacle of fresh healthy eating exemplified by the Vietnamese!

Are you more of a fresh food eater, or a processed food consumer? How do you reconcile your food ethics with your lifestyle?