H-E-B is making meal kits, but are they any good?

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 Austin360 Eats
An Chih Cheng
The SFC Farmers’ Market at the Triangle opened in 2010 and took place every Wednesday afternoon in the mixed-use building north of the University of Texas. AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Purple Carrot, Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated have created an entirely new segment of the grocery industry: the meal kit.

These handy (or overly expensive and wasteful, depending on whom you ask) kits contain all the ingredients you need to make a meal. Some services focus on healthful eating or vegetarian meals, while other emphasize their sourcing or unique recipes. All these services cost about $10 per serving, give or take a dollar and whatever promotion they might have going on. With sales in the billions, it’s no wonder meal kit companies are inspiring traditional grocery outlets to create their own versions. Central Market has had them, to some degree, for years, but only recently has H-E-B introduced what feels like a direct competitor to the iced-down box that might drop in front of your door.

You might have seen at H-E-B the little trays of salmon or chicken with a small side of vegetables and a grain that you heat up in the oven or microwave, but this latest round of prepared meal kits requires the cook to do some of the work.

H-E-B Meal Simple meal kits ($14-18 for two servings) come in a cardboard box with a recipe card explaining the steps in the meal. From options including chicken stir-fry, teriyaki salmon and chicken marsala, I chose the beef stroganoff with green beans. The beef was already sliced and the green beans trimmed, two nice touches that differentiated the kit from simply buying the ingredients on their own in the store. The stroganoff sauce came in a bag, as did the cooked noodles.

After I’d cooked the beef and the green beans, I opened the bag of broken, soft egg noodles and nibbled on one of them. They tasted as bad as I’d feared, so I tossed them in the trash and cooked a pot of egg noodles I had in the pantry. With a sprinkle of Parmesan and red pepper flakes, it felt like a slightly different meal than what I might have made on a typical day, but it didn’t taste gourmet.

Gourmet isn’t exactly H-E-B’s brand, but the dishes didn’t have the appeal of some of the more creative dishes we are seeing from the national meal kit delivery companies. That doesn’t mean these kits won’t sell, of course. I’ve heard from several readers who enjoyed other H-E-B meal kits, including the chicken marsala and General Tso’s chicken, so it might have just been an issue with this one box. These kits are priced at $7-9 per serving, which is about the same as the H-E-B tray meal that you don’t have to do any active cooking to prepare.

On a side note, I also recently tried one of the new H-E-B Veggie Toss Kits ($3.48), and I was also underwhelmed. I picked the sweet potato noodle and Alfredo sauce, but the two flavors just didn’t meld well.

EVENTS

Austin Fermentation Festival returns Oct. 22

Fermentation is so magical, it’s a wonder we don’t have more festivals to celebrate the microbes that make cheese, beer, wine, chocolate and charcuterie happen.

Getting more people to appreciate and engage with the crazy world of fermentation is the purpose of the Austin Fermentation Festival, which returns to Barr Mansion, 10463 Sprinkle Road, on Oct. 22 with a dozen workshops on making everything from beer and cider to cheese and kimchi.

The keynote speaker is Sandor Katz of Wild Fermentation, one of the most noted fermentation experts in the country, and you’ll also hear how to make cultured butter with Pure Luck Dairy, amino sauces from the chefs at Emmer & Rye, chocolate with Srsly Chocolate and kombucha with Buddha’s Brew. They’ll also screen the movie “Fermented” at 11 a.m. and 1:40 p.m. You can see the entire schedule at texasfarmersmarket.org/austin-fermentation-festival.

The event is from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and throughout the day, you’ll have the chance to sample and buy dozens of fermented foods and fermentation tools from vendors from around the state. Doors open at 10 a.m.; festival workshops start at 10:30 a.m. and run until 4:30 p.m. General admission tickets cost $25. Kids younger than 12 are free. The hands-on workshops are ticketed separately and cost $15 to $20. Proceeds benefit the Texas Farmers’ Market Farmer Emergency Fund, which offers financial assistance to TFM farmers and ranchers in times of environmental, personal or other crisis.

LOCAL FOOD

After 10 years, SFC Farmers’ Market at the Triangle is closing this month

Austin is losing a farmers market at the end of the month. After 10 years of bringing local food to Austinites in one of the first mixed-use projects in the city, the SFC Farmers’ Market at the Triangle is closing Oct. 25, according to the Sustainable Food Center, the local nonprofit that runs two other markets in Sunset Valley and downtown.

Joy Casnovsky, the deputy director of SFC, said it was a decision the staff made after many conversations with farmers and other vendors, who reported lower sales in recent years as the number of markets in the area expanded.

More markets mean more options for customers — perhaps too many options — but it means more labor and time away from the farm for the farmers, too. “Over the past decade, our Central Texas food community has seen amazing growth in the number of sales opportunities for our local producers, and we are so proud that our Triangle market helped to shape this growth,” Casnovsky wrote in a statement on the website. “Unfortunately, it appears now that this market location is no longer a viable option for our farmers, ranchers and food artisans.”

The Triangle farmers market was the second market that SFC opened, just a few years after opening the downtown location. In 2010, SFC opened a third market in Sunset Valley, which is still open in the Burger Center parking lot, and the longtime market that had been operating in that space became Barton Creek Farmers Market and moved to Barton Creek Square mall, where it now has a stunning view of the downtown skyline.

The nonprofit said that the proposed last day of the market is Oct. 24, so check the Facebook page for updates.

So, does this closure mean the local food economy is saturated?

Although the Triangle is a rare midweek farmers market in the middle of the city, shoppers these days can choose from more than a dozen farmers markets in the Austin area, from the larger markets at Barton Creek Square and Lakeline Mall on Saturdays and the Mueller development and Plaza Saltillo on Sundays, to weekend (and some weekday markets) in Bee Cave, Dripping Springs, Buda, San Marcos, Round Rock and Georgetown that have a small-town feel and a loyal customer base.

The markets in the outer areas of Austin seems to be doing well, even with the expansion of Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Whole Foods’ new 365 store. The organizers of the Williamson County markets are teasing two new markets in Cedar Park, which is already home to Texas Farmers’ Market’s Lakeline market. Are customers in the middle of Austin saturated with options? Is the Triangle too off-the-radar for newer Austinites? Are they getting local produce delivered by community supported agriculture programs? Are they hitting up the local farm stands at Boggy Creek, Springdale Farm and Green Gate Farm? Are they growing more food on their own or simply shopping at traditional food stores instead?

My gut says that the midweek market was too hard for customers to get to, especially as traffic in the city has worsened. There’s no way I can get to that Triangle market from my office downtown — much less my house even farther south — during that weekday afternoon window. But I also know that the farmers who kept the market going for so many years have to be smart about how they spend their time and how much they make at each market.

On Facebook, several shoppers commented about the dwindling number of vendors at the market over the past few years. What do you notice at local farmers markets these days? Are there too many markets or not enough? Did you go to the Triangle market? What will you miss about it?

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