No matter how tempting it sounded or easy it seemed, Julia Child submitted every recipe to “operational proof.” Likewise, after CBS News featured Maplewood’s Dinnersmith, I submitted the Springfield Avenue “meal prep studio” to the test; I prepared a meal, brought it home to cook, and ate it.
I scheduled my visit through the Dinnersmith Web site and selected an entrée, beef fajitas. These are my favorite at Toro Loco, and they are popular in my household. And although they’re not difficult to cook, I don’t make them often because there is a good bit—meat, peppers, and onions to chop, spices to mix, tortillas and sour cream to buy—to prepare. Dinnersmith purports to cut prep time significantly, and the meals serve four to six people. I expected to test that claim with my family of five.
When I went to Dinnersmith, Mary Meade welcomed me to the bright and sunny store. She showed me the armoire that holds customers’ belongings out of food’s way, and pointed me to a hand-washing sink. The store is yellow and blue, the same color as the apron I was given, with French provincial accents. There is a large couch near the windows, and a cozy café table where customers can plan a meal or simply chat. Co-owner Sharon Grey mentioned a recent baby shower held at Dinnersmith.
“The friends chipped in and assembled the meals,” explained Sharon, while the mother relaxed on the couch. I went straight to a refrigerated workstation, lifted the cover, and found my ingredients chopped and cut.
Dinnersmith features about a dozen entrees at a time. Steak Merlot is the must-have meal for all seasons. “In summer, you throw it on the grill,” explains Fran Valle, business partner and sister to Sharon Grey. “The rest of the year, it’s easy to broil.” A seasonal favorite is stuffed cabbage. “The recipes come from our homes,” says Mary. “This is something we all grew up eating." Sisters Fran and Sharon prefer theirs with raisins, while Mary’s Ukrainian tradition is less sweet. “We customize recipes all the time,” explains Mary. “We can make recipes kosher, vegan, and gluten-free.” The store is peanut-free at all times.
Dinnersmith meals are prepared in either zipper-top bags or aluminum trays. Since my meal had to marinate, I reached for a bag.
Mary showed me how to use a canister to hold the bag open while I mixed the marinade. Dinnersmith crafts their own spice blends, and customers who prefer more heat or tang can add what they choose. Each workstation has a palette of spices that suit a particular cuisine; walking through the store I smelled curry, rosemary, and garlic.
As I put the pre-cut flank steak into the marinade, the phone rang. Gift certificates and pre-assembled meals are popular gifts, and a customer was phoning to arrange a delivery. Dinnersmith has a program they call “You Deliver, We Deliver.” For a month after the arrival of a new baby, Dinnersmith will deliver free of charge in our area. “What a great gift,” I sighed. Sharon laughed. “I know,” she said. “We all remember.”
The women of Dinnersmith understand the challenge of preparing a healthy meal night after night. Their mission, in Fran’s words, is to “put families back at the table.” They note that it’s not only studies that suggest eating a balanced meal is healthy for kids and adults; it’s common sense. Still, they find many customers haven’t had the experience of cooking daily. “Maybe they’ve moved out from the city, lived with roommates, never had the opportunity to cook much,” says Sharon. “We’re here to help.”
As the women recalled their “regulars’” favorites and special requests, I made another bag of marinade for the red and green peppers and chopped onions. I don’t cook beef well, I admitted to Mary. “Cook just until it’s brown around the edges and pink in the middle,” she instructed me. “It will still cook when you turn off the heat.” I started to take notes, but no need; she helped me label each bag with directions. “The phone number’s there too,” she added. I laughed, but it’s no joke; customers call at all times of day, and from many places, to ask questions.
Indeed, Sharon said that this summer saw Dinnersmith meals travelling up and down the East Coast and throughout New England. As I added a pack of tortillas and a container of sour cream to my meal, I nodded enthusiastically. Bringing a cooler of pre-made meals beats the dozen grocery bags I have taken down the shore.
Fajitas and rice are a natural combo, so I took a bag of Mexican-seasoned rice. Measuring conservatively, I went home with nearly two pounds of flank steak, and about three pounds of vegetables. Dinnersmith provided tortillas, sour cream, and seasoned rice, as well as the spices for the marinade. The prices work on a volume discount. In the smallest quantity, meals cost about $27. If I had made this meal from scratch, I would have paid very close to the same amount of money, and spent a good deal more time and effort.
But what about taste? At dinnertime, I cooked the beef, vegetables and rice, plating the sour cream on the side. I warmed the tortillas slightly and ate. Having the meat and vegetables carefully cut made for an attractive meal. And the marinade was so flavorful that my 10-year-old carnivore tried to drink it. The fajitas made for a very satisfying, very tasty meal, and there was plenty to go around.
Dinnersmith works for many families in our community and I understand why. It’s easy and satisfying. Mary Meade said, “We strive for platinum customer service,” which I experienced. And when it came time to eat the meal, I remembered what Fran Valle and Sharon Grey told me. “We grew up in a family business,” said Sharon. “Our father told us to put the money in the product, not on the walls.” The food was delicious, and the time saved made for a remarkable value.
I’ve booked my return visit for a day off from school. The young carnivore and I will prepare three meals together. He saw the Dinnersmith Web site and has his eye on Steak Merlot. Me, I have my eye on that couch near the window.