Friday, October 24, 2014

Fresh Express Salads

If you thought it was strange that I reviewed Sambazon smoothies last week , then I can only imagine what you are thinking now.  Salads?  Really?

Like I said, I get to sample random things sometimes because of this blog.  And in this case, it was salads.  Fresh Express sent me coupons to try whatever I wanted.  I could have stuck with basic lettuce blends, but I mostly went for the kits, because those are far more exciting.

For the most part, the greens, which is their primary product, were fine, but, not particularly remarkable.  I don't normally buy bagged, pre-washed greens at the grocery store (I'm a farmer's market kind of girl), so I'm not their target demographic.  But ... the dressings included in the some of the kits turned out to be totally delicious.

It was actually really fun to try these salads and add more greens into our daily life.  Ojan of course got to play along with me, and he also ate far more salad for a few weeks than I think he wanted, but, he was good sport.  If you are looking for pre-washed greens, available anywhere, with easy kits to make a meal, Fresh Express could be for you.

Kits

As I mentioned, the kits were the most exciting products.  They all include base greens, plus dressing, and a few other mix-ins.  Each one is packaged in a outer bag, with individual bags for the dressing and additions.

Fresh Express makes four different caesar salad kits (one with bacon, one enhanced with better cheese, and a lite version), two mexican style salads (one chopped, one not), two asian style salads (one chopped, one not), and a pear gorgonzola and a cole slaw.  I tried some from all categories except the asian ones.  While the greens and add-ins didn't impress me, the dressings really did, and luckily, they always provided far more dressing than you needed for the quantity of greens, so you could use it again another time.  If only they sold just the dressing!
Pear Gorgonzola Kit.
"Tender baby lettuces and sweet dried pears, frosted almonds and an amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".

The very first Fresh Express salad I picked was the Pear Gorgonzola.  It sounded most like something I'd actually order in a restaurant.

I was confused when I opened the bag ... where were the pears?

The outer bag contained baby lettuces, a blend of romaine, green and red leaf, lolla rosa, green tango, green and red oak leaf, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, baby spinach, and radicchio.  The assortment was varied and the lettuces were decently fresh.  I particularly liked the mix of colors, and the bitter radicchio.  I was impressed that they included so many more rare baby greens in a regular supermarket item.  But no pears.

The dressing bag contained the "amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".  I didn't necessarily taste pear, but it was sweet, and reasonably well seasoned.  It had very tiny chunks of gorgonzola in it that helped balance against the sweetness, but I definitely overdressed my salad, and regretted how sweet it was.  The ingredients listed brown sugar, which explains the sweetness ... why?  Pear juice already provided plenty of sweetness.  The quantity of dressing was more than sufficient, and we had plenty left over to use on later salads.

The final bag initially looked like it was just the frosted almonds, but, it was the answer to "where is the pear?"  Along with the chopped almonds, were tiny, tiny chunks of dried pear.  They were completely lost once added to the salad.  Bigger chunks were definitely needed.  I did appreciate having both the almonds and pears for additional crunch.

I also added grape tomatoes, bacon, and gorgonzola crumbles once I saw how little was in the dressing.  My additions all complimented the salad well.

Overall, I was impressed with this; the greens were good, the dressing interesting, and the pear and almonds decent toppings.  I do wish the sweetness was dialed down a bit, and wanted something more, like real chunks of gorgonzola or bigger pears, but it was decent, and I'd eat it again.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit.
"A sensational combination of iceberg and romaine lettuces topped with Mexican seasoned cheeses, tortilla strips and spicy ranch dressing."

Next, I moved on to one of the Mexican offerings, the Salsa! Ensalada (the other choice was the Southwest Chopped salad, which sounded similar, but with chopped lettuces and cabbage).

The greens here were a bit boring, more standard, and mostly iceberg.  Fresh and crisp, but seriously, who eats iceberg these days?

The "Mexican seasoned cheeses" were a mix of finely shredded cheddar, colby, and jack with nacho seasoning.  The cheese wasn't remarkable, but added some zing and complimented the rest of the kit.

For tortilla strips, there were two varieties, yellow and blue, crunchy, but fairly unremarkable, and there weren't nearly enough for the amount of lettuce provided.  But again, complimented the kit well.

And finally, the spicy ranch dressing.  This stuff was very tasty.  I didn't quite get the "ranch" aspect to it, but it was creamy, and zesty, and tasted remarkably like the tacos I ate growing up.  Again, there was far more dressing provided than we needed, so we gladly used the rest up on later salads.

This all came together quite well, and I enjoyed it.  It would make for a very easy taco salad dinner with some seasoned beef or chicken thrown on top.  I also think it could have used carrots and tomatoes.  I'd certainly consider getting this one again, and jazzing it up a bit.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit ... as a taco salad!
A few weeks later, I decided to try out my taco salad idea.  I used the Salsa! Ensalada kit as the base for my salad, providing the lettuce, Mexican cheese, tortilla strips, and of course, the dressing.

As I said last time, it clearly needed tomatoes, so I added diced tomatoes.  I also thought the amount of crispy tortilla strips, while perhaps sufficient for a side salad, was not adequate for a full entree sized taco salad.  So I also added some Way Better Snacks Multigrain Tortilla Chips (remember those?), which I crumbled up.  I don't love them as tortilla chips on their own, but crumbled up in the salad they worked well.  What is unique about the chips is that they are made with sprouted seeds, and boost an impressive nutritional panel, are full of good things like Omega-3s. These particular ones are made with sprouted brown rice, quinoa, stone ground corn, flax seed, chia seed, broccoli seeds, and daikon radish seeds, all organic.  So, for tortilla chips, quite healthy, and they added whole grains and omega-3s to our otherwise not exactly nutritious meal.

Finally, I topped the whole thing with seasoned ground beef and onions, and a little cilantro.

It worked just as I hoped, and made for a ridiculously easy, satisfying, dinner.  Hands down the most successful salad we had.
CaesarLite® Kit.
"Our CaesarLite® dressing delivers all the authentic Caesar flavor you love with fewer calories and less fat than our regular Caesar dressing. Super crisp romaine is topped with our tasty, crunchy garlic croutons."

Fresh Express makes 4 different caesar kits: the "caesar kit", the "bacon caesar", the "caesar supreme", and the "caesar lite".  Ojan likes caesar salad, so we were interested in trying these out, particularly after the success of the dressings from the other kits.

We started with the light option, because, well, if it was good, why not pick the lightest option?

I was of course curious to see what was different between the kits, besides just a lower-fat dressing. The first thing I noticed is that the CaesarLite does not contain an additional packet of parmesan cheese to sprinkle on, like the regular caesar.  Obviously, the bacon one contains "real bacon pieces", in addition to the extra parmesan cheese.  And the supreme?  Rather than simple grated parmesan, it has "Italian artisan cheeses".  Oh my.  And rather than the "classic caesar dressing" of the others, it has "creamy caesar dressing".  We'll see how they all compare.

Nutrition-wise, the regular caesar clocks in at 150 calories per serving, 12 grams of fat. The supreme version adds a few calories and more fat (160 calories per serving, 14 grams of fat).  The Caesar Lite is indeed lighter, at only 90 calories and 6 grams of fat.

But back to the Caesar Lite.

The lettuce was all classic romaine, and I was pleasantly surprised by how crisp and crunchy it was.  Not a single bit of brown on it either.  They do earn the "Fresh" part of their name.  The bag contained a variety of types of leaves, but was generous with the hearts of romaine, my favorite part.  This was certainly the best of the lettuces we tried so far.

The garlic croutons were also a surprise.  They didn't look like much, and I expected them to be dry and flavorless, but instead they were really crunchy, buttery, and indeed garlicky.  I loved the flavor and the crunch they added to the salad.

The weakest part was the CaesarLite® dressing however.  It was very clearly a light dressing, more vinaigrette-y than creamy.  It didn't have any real anchovy flavor to it either, although anchovy is listed as an ingredient (albeit the second to last one).  Like the other kits, there was far more dressing than we needed, although in this case, we had no desire to keep it.

Overall, I was impressed by the lettuce and croutons, but I really didn't care for the dressing, no matter how much better for me it was.  And I wanted parmesan to add to it.  This was the first kit we tried where the dressing wasn't the star.  It did however make me curious to try the regular caesar, and the very fancy "supreme" version!
Bacon Caesar Kit.
So we moved on to the most exciting of the caesar kits: the bacon caesar.  The contents sound identical to the regular caesar, just with bacon pieces added:  "romaine lettuce, real bacon pieces, garlic butter croutons, aged parmesan, classic Caesar dressing."

The lettuce was pretty much identical to the other caesars, fresh and crisp, romaine.  The croutons seemed exactly the same too, even though described as "garlic butter croutons" in the Caesar and Bacon Caesar and just "garlic croutons" in the Lite version.  I'm pretty sure they were all the same, as they looked and tasted the same, and the ingredient lists were identical.  The croutons again didn't look like anything special, but the garlic flavor was crazy intense, and I loved the crunch they provided.

Unlike the Lite version, the regular Caesar and the Bacon Caesar provide a packet of grated parmesan cheese. It was completely unremarkable, not even a step above what you find in packets at a generic pizza joint, or in the green shakers at the grocery store.  Not exactly real parmesan!

Since I wasn't impressed with the Caesar Lite dressing, I was anxious to try the regular Caesar dressing, since I had been quite happy with the dressings from the other kits.  As I expected, this dressing was much better.  It was creamy rather than vinegary, it had some grit from parmesan cheese throughout, it had a bit of tang, and you could even taste a little anchovy.  A very classic, decent, caesar dressing.  I'd never go out of my way for it, but it tasted like a caesar dressing should, and was a totally different league from the Lite version.  Turns out, fat tastes good!  And like the other kits, plenty of extra dressing, which we gladly used later.

The differentiating component of this salad should have been the bacon.  Because, seriously, doesn't bacon always make things better?  I wasn't sure what to expect from the bacon, I pretty much expected tiny little bacon bit crumbles.  Maybe fakin' bacon.  I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the package to find a packet of, well, real bacon pieces, as promised.  Far bigger than bacon bits, or even crumbles really, and yes, they looked to be actual bacon.  But, once I invested further, my satisfaction with them disappeared.  I only like crisp bacon, and this was floppy and slimy.  I guess that is what happens when you put bacon in a little bag?  It also was really, really fatty.  Obviously, it is bacon, bacon is fatty, but this seemed to be either really poor cuts of bacon, or just not cooked such that the fat rendered out.  Either way, it was a disappointment, I didn't want flimsy, soggy, chewy, fatty bits of bacon in my salad.  Although, once mixed into the salad, the fact that it wasn't crisp was much less noticeable.

If I were craving a Caesar salad again, I liked the dressing from this enough that I'd get it again, but I'd go for the regular one, and skip the bacon.  And, I'd provide my own cheese.  Or really, I'd try to find somewhere that carries the Supreme version, as it is supposed to have higher quality cheese.
Cole Slaw Kit.
"Contains the freshest green cabbage and red cabbage, plus carrots, along with our signature sweet, creamy dressing."

Fresh Express makes a range of cole slaw products, starting with basic "Angel Hair Cole Slaw", which is just finely shredded green cabbage.  Next up is "Old Fashioned Cole Slaw", which adds shredded carrots to the cabbage mix.  To kick up the color another notch, you can go for the "3-color Deli Cole Slaw", which adds red cabbage as well.  But those all just contain the veggies, no dressing.

But of course, they make a Cole Slaw Kit as well, containing a mix of green and red cabbage and carrots, all shredded and ready to go, and a packet of "classic" coleslaw dressing.  At this point, I'd like to note that they spell it "cole slaw", two words, in all of the product names, but for the dressing?  "coleslaw", one word.  No judgement about which is correct (although, I think coleslaw is), but come on folks, consistency?

Anyway, the greens in this were the least impressive looking of the products I tried.  The cabbage looked dried out.  There was technically a scattering of red cabbage and carrots, but their representation was pretty minimal, my bag was essentially just green cabbage.

The dressing also didn't look quite right, as I expected something that was white and thick, mayo based, as that is what "classic" coleslaw dressing is to me.  But I realize vinegar slaw is also a thing.  This dressing seemed to live somewhere in the middle of the two styles, creamier than a vinegar based dressing, but not as creamy as a mayo one.  It was quite tangy from the vinegar, but too sweet.  It had both sugar and high fructose corn syrup in it, really unnecessary in these amounts.  It also lacked any zing, and I needed to add fresh cracked pepper to the mix.  However, for the first time with any kit, I found the amount of dressing provided actually matched the amount needed for the rest of the salad, and we didn't have any extra.

Overall, this just wasn't a classic cole slaw for me, I wanted creamier dressing, a peppery zing, and far more carrot.  But perhaps this is classic to someone, and it wasn't bad exactly, just not my style.  I do think the sweeter style would have benefited from the addition of some nuts to give a bit of bitterness, like pecans perhaps, or maybe just sliced apples or dried cranberries to just go with the sweet style more.

Amusingly, when I asked Ojan what he thought of it, his first comment was, "did you add pepper?"  I responded that I had, and he said, "why?  I want more, but without the pepper".  I said that coleslaw always has pepper, and he disagreed, saying that it should have had horseradish.  I've never had horseradish in my coleslaw.  So clearly, "classic" in regards to coleslaw is a highly individual thing!

Veggie Medleys

I still wasn't ready to try just basic greens, so I checked out the Veggie Medley's line.  These were all lettuce bases, with additional vegetables, like carrots, cabbage, radishes, pea pods, tomatoes.  But, not full kits, so no dressing provided.
Veggie Lover's.
"The perfect combination of lettuce and veggies you love!"

After success with the kits, we went for the most interesting sounding of the non-kits, the Veggie Lover's, as it had the most veggies other than just lettuce.  The bag said it had iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots, pea pods, red cabbage, and radishes.

This was a very week attempt at a mixed salad.  The lettuce was mostly iceberg, flavorless, but fresh and juicy.  But there is so little value in iceberg.  I found very little romaine in the mix.

The cabbage and carrots were shredded and since they were heavier than the lettuce sunk to the bottom of the bag.  It was a bit annoying to get enough mixed in to add a little color and crunch.

The radish was a bit of a joke, perhaps three crinkle slices in the entire bag.  But more of a joke?  The pea pods.  I searched high and low, but didn't find a single one.

So sure, this was fresh, and it had some other veggies, but it was still mostly just a bag of iceberg, and I really didn't care for it.  Would not get again.

Tender Leaf Mixes

Ok, now for just some greens.  I skipped all the standard greens, the "Tasty Greens" products, and the fairly banal looking "Refreshing Mixes", and went straight for the higher end looking "Tender Leaf Mixes", which were mostly spinach based.
Baby Kale Mix.
"A perfect blend of kale and chard that makes any salad delicious."

I went for the "Baby Kale Mix", as it was the most interesting sounding.  It contained spinach and chard in addition to the namesake baby kale.  In fact, it contained more spinach than anything else.

The greens were all fine, fresh enough, tender, baby greens.  A fun mix, a bit peppery.  We enjoyed it raw as a caesar salad with leftover dressing from the caesar kit, and then simply sautéed it with salt and pepper the next night.  I liked it both ways, but slightly more when cooked down.
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