Brow Beat

Curious About Mark Bittman’s New Vegan Meal-Kit Delivery Service? We Tried It.

The Purple Carrot’s vegan sag paneer.

Photo by Miriam Krule

In November, longtime New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman announced that he had joined vegan meal-kit delivery service The Purple Carrot as a recipe developer and spokesman. This development piqued our interest, as two vegetarians who enjoy cooking (one of whom used to work for Mark Bittman). So we decided to give Purple Carrot a trial run, to see if the meal delivery service model pioneered by companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh could make sense for people who don’t eat animal products. After cooking three Purple Carrot meals, we chatted about the food, and whether Purple Carrot could vanquish our qualms about meal-kit delivery series.

L.V. Anderson: Miriam, Purple Carrot sent each of us a package containing three vegan meal kits. But before we discuss our experiences cooking them, I want to talk about why we were interested in the first place. Why did you want to try Purple Carrot?

Miriam Krule: The short answer? I was jealous of everyone using all the other subscription meal services and got excited when I read about the first exclusively vegan one. (I’m a vegan.) There’s also the Mark Bittman factor: I was never a huge acolyte of his, though I keep the green magnum opus How to Cook Everything Vegetarian above my fridge for easy access, I figured it was worth trying if it was something he believed in so passionately that he would quit his job at the New York Times.

Anderson: The Mark Bittman factor definitely interested me, too. I should disclose upfront that I worked for Mark Bittman for a few years before I started at Slate, so I’m pretty familiar with his writing, and it does strike me as a slight but meaningful shift in approach for him to hook up with a meal-kit company. His message for many years has always boiled down to “cooking healthy food is easy and everyone can do it,” and joining Purple Carrot seems like a concession that for many people, cooking is not easy. Or at least not easy enough that they’re doing it regularly.

Have you always been intrigued by meal-kit services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh? I confess that when they first hit the market, I thought they were dumb (like, is it really so hard to pick out a recipe yourself and then go to the grocery store?).

Krule: I’ve never met a recipe that I didn’t change slightly, so the meal-kit services always felt constraining: like ordering in, except that you have to do all the cooking and can’t change anything. Now, I realize that Purple Carrot is trying to make healthy cooking more practical by giving people clear blueprints—but it felt unnatural to me not to play around with the recipes to suit my tastes.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s a very good description of my confusion around meal-kit services. If you want someone else to do the cooking for you, order in. If you want to make something to your liking, cook. Meal-kit services seem like the worst of both worlds: someone else is in charge of the details, but you still have to invest a not-trivial amount of work into the meal. It’s all of the labor of cooking combined with all of the unpredictability of takeout. 

At least, that’s what I used to think. Now I realize (a) a lot of people are anxious about cooking and really appreciate getting little packets of ingredients and clear instructions, (b) grocery shopping does involve a not-inconsiderable amount of time and energy, and it’s nice to not have to go to the grocery store, and (c) it can actually be a huge relief to delegate decision-making around meals to someone else.

Krule: That’s fair, but I love going grocery shopping. Like a lot. I’m a devoted member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, so the notion of someone else picking out my vegetables stresses me out, which puts me in the minority of people in the age of Fresh Direct (or is Amazon Fresh now the hip alternative?) and CSAs. But as much as I love Pinteresting lists and lists of recipes, actually picking what I’m going to make sometimes is a lot less fun, so I do appreciate that aspect.

Anderson: Same. Deciding what I want to make for dinner can be stressful enough that I just put it off and end up eating cereal for dinner (or getting into ruts where I cook the same thing every week because it’s familiar and easy). Purple Carrot basically forces you to try new recipes and removes all the stress of thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner, which I appreciate. The cost—$9.25 or $11.33 per meal, depending on which plan you get—is higher than you’d pay if you bought all the ingredients at the grocery store, but arguably worth the added convenience. Plus, in my experience, Purple Carrot’s portion sizes are quite large—each of our recipes was supposed to make two servings, but most of them seemed to serve three or four.

Krule: I think the thing that shocked me the most about Purple Carrot was how basic the recipes were! The three meals we tried were a) a pasta dish with cauliflower and Brussels sprouts b) black bean burgers c) a rice and spinach dish based on the Indian dish sag paneer. I was, maybe naively, expecting more exciting ingredients—ingredients I wouldn’t be able to find in my regular grocery store—to add a bit of excitement. (I should note that Purple Carrot announces its menu options a week in advance, so the meal itself isn’t a surprise to regular subscribers.)

It was really interesting to me that, while we got individual packets of all the ingredients, none of the vegetables were chopped. I’m not talking onions, I’m talking the cauliflower or even the spinach! It felt like Purple Carrot was straddling this weird line of like “here, this is super practical” and “here, we’ll have you do lots of unnecessary steps!” I really think they should chop some of these vegetables for us.

Anderson: Yes, I agree. I also didn’t understand why we had to separate the cauliflower into florets for the pasta—I mean, they sent us half a head of cauliflower that was broken up into pieces in a ziplock bag, but we were still forced to do the extra steps of washing it and cutting it into smaller florets. That kind of thing just seems designed to create the illusion that you are making this dish from scratch.

However, I loved the pasta. The recipe called for boiling the cauliflower, then sautéing it with garlic and crushed red pepper. After you cook the pasta (in the same water you cooked the cauliflower in), you toss it with the cauliflower and shredded Brussels sprouts. You also toast breadcrumbs and pine nuts to put on top of the pasta. For me, this was a very successful recipe: It’s something I probably wouldn’t have chosen to make on my own (because double-cooking the cauliflower and toasting the toppings seems needlessly complicated), but I ended up really liking it and confident that I could make it again easily. Of the three, this was the only one I would make again. What about you? 

Krule: I wish I had come over and tried your pasta! I felt like a complete failure after making the cauliflower/Brussels sprout pasta dish. From the directions, I thought it would be a creamy-ish sauce, instead it was like small pieces of cauliflower with no real sauce. (It needed a sauce!) I ended up sprinkling nutritional yeast on it to add flavor.

Anderson: Did you like the tofu-spinach dish? It was my least favorite of all the three: the spinach was slimy, the tofu was gelatinous and bland, and the coconut-curry sauce was rich but not particularly flavorful. I think that was a particular case where more exotic or unusual ingredients would have made a huge difference. One of the potentially nice things about meal kits is that they include tiny baggies of spices, which means you can try different spices without having to invest in a whole jar of each of them. If the spinach and tofu curry had included turmeric or coriander, it might have tasted better. Instead, it just called for curry powder and garam masala. Generic curry powder and garam masala just don’t cut it in my book. I don’t know, am I being too hard on this recipe?

Krule: I don’t think so! I was surprised how bland the dishes were, to be honest. I kind of liked the sag paneer, but it definitely needed at least three more spices, or more of each at least. And there were so many added steps that made me feel hostile toward the process. Like, I would have just bought frozen chopped spinach, because that’s essentially what the recipe called for. Instead, I had to flash boil it and then put it in an ice bath.

Anderson: I agree that blanching the spinach seemed utterly pointless. They basically made us bring an entire pot of water to a boil just so we could boil the spinach for 20 seconds (literally, 20 seconds). Why not steam it? Or, as you suggest, send us chopped frozen spinach instead? 

Krule: By far the most complicated one for me was the burger. To be fair, I’ve always been terrified of making my own vegan burger. I LOVE ordering veggie burgers at restaurants, but for some reason the process is always daunting to me. So I was SUPER excited to try their recipe. And, I was actually pretty impressed—aside from the part where I found the directions impossible to follow.

Anderson: Yeah, there were some parts of the burger kit that that seemed … odd to me. The onions they sent to put in the burger patties were pearl onions, which are tiny and hard to peel. Why not just send a small yellow onion?

Krule: I didn’t see the small onions! So I threw in the red onion (intended to be served as a garnish) instead. Only at the next step did I realize it was the wrong onion. But you know what? It was fine! It’s OK to make mistakes and making mistakes is part of learning to love to cook.

But then, when I fried my patties, I was never fully sure if they were done. It was fine because vegan burgers have nothing that will get you sick and the ingredients were basically bean dip, but I felt like I wasn’t in control. The rest of that meal consisted of the ingredients to make sweet potato fries, mustard and ketchup packets, English muffin buns, lettuce, and a tomato that came in its own Tupperware so as not to be smashed, which for some reason I found incredibly charming. (As a whole, the packaging, which is meant to be somewhat sustainable I believe, was adorably labeled. Even the recipe cards were sleek and had step-by-step photos, which I always appreciate). The ingredients were super basic, but I still felt like I wasn’t properly prepped to make this burger—there were no secret tricks or comforting words!—and while it was tasty, I don’t feel inspired to make another burger any time soon.

Anderson: The burger was not a success for me—I managed to burn both the burgers and the fries, because I’m a genius. They both turned out edible anyway, but not great. And the proportions of different ingredients were off, I thought (I got way too much lettuce but not enough sweet potatoes). Finally, I just didn’t think the payoff warranted all the assembly. When I cook, I usually go for one-pot meals (like the pasta) instead of fiddly sandwiches requiring tons of different components, and this burger wasn’t awesome enough to make me reconsider my usual approach.

Krule: Oh! One more thing: the necessary equipment. I have a food processor, but it seemed weird that Purple Carrot just assumes people have one handy. Two out of the three recipes essentially needed one.

Anderson: I have a food processor, but I hate it, so I used an immersion blender for the burgers and a knife for the Brussels sprouts in the pasta dish, and it turned out OK. To be fair, the recipe descriptions did all give alternative methods for people without food processors.

You and I should probably acknowledge that we might not be the ideal audience for meal services like Purple Carrot. After all, we both cook a fair amount already, and so we didn’t exactly need the training wheels of ready-made recipes. We also both live alone, and while I didn’t mind having leftovers to take into work for lunch the next day, I think these meals are designed more for couples or families. Do you think Purple Carrot will do a good job of converting meat-eaters to veganism? 

Krule: I ate everything I cooked, but I’m not sure there was anything that would convince a meat eater to change his or her diet and work harder to create meatless meals. If Purple Carrot wants to convert people to veganism, I think the recipes need some work.

But I think the product is totally in line with Bittman’s worldview that cooking isn’t simple or magic, but everyday cooking is doable and takes a little bit of work. There’s no magic trick to cooking food (aside from aquafaba). If you want good food, you will have to put in the time, and Purple Carrot makes it easier to put in the time.

It doesn’t seem to be about introducing you to new food, it’s about making relatively healthy food more accessible—which kind of makes it the obvious next step for Bittman. Instead of giving us just the recipe, now he’s like “Here is everything but the actual pot you need to cook it in.”

Anderson: I think the ideal audience for this is someone who wants to learn how to cook but is too intimidated (or just too busy) to choose recipes for him or herself. I agree that the time required for cooking isn’t insignificant—I spent about 45 minutes on each of these, I think—but the fact that Purple Carrot takes care of all the decision-making and grocery-shopping makes it attractive for parents and other busy people, I think. And it is definitely cheaper than takeout. So would you order Purple Carrot again, Miriam?

Krule: Absolutely. I feel like I was mostly critical in our chat, but that’s only because I had such high hopes for Purple Carrot and know it can be better. I now kinda get the appeal of having all the ingredients delivered right to my door and having the menu picked out for me. I really enjoy cooking and like knowing all the ingredients in the food I’m eating so the price difference between Purple Carrot and ordering in felt pretty negligible. I have a feeling/hope that as they try out more recipes, the selection will only get better. Next time I’d probably invite a friend over to cook with me though because this kind of cooking felt more social than usual. How about you?

Anderson: I’m already on it. When Purple Carrot offered 50-percent off its prices on Black Friday, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge and subscribe. I’m a little worried this will damage my home-cooking credibility—but hey, if Mark embraced meal kits, why can’t I?