I Tried Universal Yums and Here’s What Happened

Christmas seems like a long time ago now, but that’s where this story begins. Back in December, as I was assembling my Christmas list (like a NORMAL person–who are these nonchalant gift receivers who say, “Just get me whatever you think I’d like!”?), I had been chatting with my co-workers about the hot new trend of boxes. Yes, boxes. Not plain old boxes, or simple gift boxes, but the kind of subscription boxes that arrive in the mail monthly with special, interesting goodies. You may have heard of examples like Stitch Fix, Birchbox, or The PMS Package (yes, it is what you think it is).

Being a foodie, I knew the one box I wanted to add to my Christmas list: Universal Yums. This box service caters to the culinarily adventurous, sending gift boxes of snacks from a different country each month. Chupa chups from Mexico? Haribo gummies from Germany? Sign me up! (Just nothing with crickets, please.)

When Christmas rolled around, my brother was kind enough to gift me with a month of Universal Yums. My box arrived in January full of edible presents from…drumroll, please…Greece! After taking a moment to give thanks that it wasn’t from somewhere extremely exotic to me, like Vietnam (see cricket aversion above), I sliced open my “Yum Yum Box” with gusto.

Not sure who was more excited, my 6-year-old or me.

The Yum Yum Box includes at least 12 snacks (other Universal Yums packages come with anywhere from 6 to 20+ goodies). Here’s what the haul looked like unboxed:

A variety of sweet and savory, it boasted oregano chips, a sesame-almond bar, cookies flavored with must (a kind of grape juice), olives, chewy fruit candies, something called halva (which my husband, who has a Greek aunt, recognized as a snack, but which looked more like cement to me), bread chips, a cream-filled croissant, and several chocolate candy bars.

For my first snack of choice, I dug into the chocolate (obviously), opting for a Triplo bar.

The Triplo bar needs to hit the U.S., like, immediately. Without a doubt, it would be a huge success. A three-humped chocolate-caramel mixture tops a wafer base, making this some perfect amalgam of Milky Way and Kit Kat. I’ve been scouring the internet for where to buy these in bulk every since. The other chocolate items in the Yum Yum Box were similarly delicious.

The sesame-almond bar I tried next certainly did NOT resemble any snack native to the U.S. Containing just sesame seeds, honey, and almonds, it sure could teach American processed snacks a thing or two about the goodness of simplicity. To this Western lady, its flavor was distinctly foreign–but enjoyably so–especially with the knowledge it was comprised of only three ingredients.

 

This brings me to another element I appreciated about the Yum Yum Box: with standard FDA-regulated nutrition facts on each food item, I wasn’t left to decipher nutrition information from Greek in kilojoules.

Additionally, a fun little booklet accompanied the box, providing a bit of background on each snack, as well as some games and riddles to solve, indicating where next month’s box would come from. This mini-magazine added to the intrigue and festive feeling of the experience.

Since my box arrived in January, I’ve gradually made my way through the dozen or so items it delivered, loving some, disliking others, feeling indifferent toward a few. Actually, it’s not quite true that I’ve made my way through all of them. I have yet to try the halva (which I still think looks more like a gray brick from some Communist-era demolition site than a desirable on-the-go snack), and I eventually threw out the cream-filled croissant on the grounds that any cream that can survive a trip across the planet and two months in my pantry is a cream I don’t want to eat.

This highlights the primary drawback I see with Universal Yums’ model: every food sent is, by necessity, processed. For obvious reasons, you can’t exactly send fresh fruits and vegetables or home-cooked meals via international mail. Still, as a nutritionist, I can’t help but hesitate to completely embrace a monthly celebration of processed food.

Final word: would I get Universal Yums again? As a gift, yes, any time! But personally, even though I enjoy trying new foods and the feeling that I can travel the globe with my mouth, I’m not quite up to spending $14-39/month to do so. Plus, I honestly don’t think I have the appetite for so many unusual snacks every month. There would always be ones I’m just not adventurous enough to eat (though it could be fun weirding out whoever runs the canned food drive at my kids’ school by donating shrimp chips from Thailand or beet candies from Ukraine). Regardless, my Universal Yums experience was definitely exciting and novel, and I’d be curious to see what a box from another country would look like.

Would you try an international snack box service? Or have you already? Tell me about it!

Coconut Almond Muffins

The Monday after spring break has its ups and downs. In my case, having stayed home with my kids for the better part of ten days, I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little grateful to have them headed back to school this morning. Like, if I hear one more “He hit me and I did NOTHING!” I might need to pack up and move to Aruba. On the other hand, I do treasure the concentrated time home with them doing fun activities like park play dates, library visits, and living room picnics.

And after almost a whole week or waking up without an alarm, it was a little hard to get out of bed this morning.

That’s partly why I made these Coconut Almond Muffins yesterday–to trick myself into the motivation needed to get up and go about regularly scheduled life. With the hearty texture of ground almonds and tropical sweetness of coconut, they’re a tasty treat that’s worth hauling myself into the kitchen for.

What I didn’t anticipate, though, was that my ten-year-old son (who took a sudden interest in cooking over spring break) would make me coffee, pour me a glass of water, and plate me two of these muffins–complete on a tray for breakfast in bed! Since our spring break was somewhat derailed by the bickering so common to school-aged kids, we’d had a long talk last night about service and kindness. Something must have sunk in.

I guess the only problem is that I didn’t actually have to get out of bed to eat them!

 


Print Recipe
Coconut Almond Muffins
A classic combination of coconut and almond flavors these lovely muffins!
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
muffins
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
muffins
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease 12 muffin cups.
  2. In a large bowl, combine all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center and add melted butter, almond milk, almond extract, vanilla extract, and eggs. Stir until just combined.
  3. Coarsely grind the almonds: pulse almonds in a small food processor or zap a few times with an immersion blender until broken into small pieces. Mix almonds and coconut into batter.
  4. Divide batter between 12 muffin cups and bake in preheated oven 14-18 minutes. Let cool and store in an airtight container.
Recipe Notes

Adapted from Bake or Break.

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Spinach Salad with Mahimahi, Grapefruit, and Avocado

I’ll be honest. This is a rather polarizing salad. At least in my house it is. I contend that the flavors of tart grapefruit, mild mahimahi, creamy avocado, and a lime-honey vinaigrette all mixed up together make for an explosion of deliciously contrasting flavors and textures. The rest of my family, on the other hand, is not so keen.

Grapefruit isn’t just an acquired taste. Apparently our taste perception of it and several other bitter foods depends on our genetics. (So I can give my husband and kids a pass.) But if you’re one of those fortunate people who can enjoy grapefruit, now is the time to do so–at least in Arizona, where we live.

This grapefruity recipe comes from Real Simple, a magazine that generally lives up to its name. But to take a simple recipe and make it even easier for weeknight dinnertime, I swapped out grilled fresh mahimahi for Trader Joe’s frozen mahimahi burgers. They may not be quite as pretty as grilled fillets, but these burgers, diced, turned assembly of this salad into a total breeze. Plus, they’re a WHOLE lot less expensive than what my regular grocery store charges for mahimahi.

I enjoyed this flavor combo so much on Thursday evening that I recreated it for my Lenten Fish Friday. If you observe Lent or just need a light, refreshing, easy lunch or dinner, you can’t go wrong with this healthy salad…

…unless you’re genetically predisposed to hate grapefruit.


Print Recipe
Spinach Salad with Mahimahi, Grapefruit, and Avocado
An explosion of varying tastes and textures, this salad is a light, healthy meal!
Course Main Dish, seafood
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
as a main dish
Course Main Dish, seafood
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
as a main dish
Instructions
  1. Prepare mahimahi burgers according to instructions on box. Meanwhile, spread spinach on a large platter. Top with grapefruit segments and diced avocado. When mahimahi burgers are done cooking, slice them into pieces and spread over salad.
  2. Make the dressing: in a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together all ingredients. Toss salad with dressing or serve on the side.
Recipe Notes

Adapted from Real Simple.

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Book Review: Stir

Normally, I have a bit of an aversion to food memoirs. Often they’re cloyingly sappy, with too-tender tales of lessons both culinary and clichéd on grandmother’s knee. Or they make improbable leaps from food to philosophy: “As I kneaded the dough with my fingers, I was reminded that life’s possibilities are always at our fingertips.” Then again, maybe my distaste for food memoirs has to do with a secret jealousy that people out there are writing whole books about their relationship with food. Entirely possible.

So when I picked up a copy of Jessica Fechtor’s Stir at my local library, I wasn’t really prepared to like it.

Truth be told, it wasn’t the food aspect that made me toss Stir onto my pile of books for checkout in the first place. What drew me in was instead the fact that Fechtor’s story centers on recovery from a brain aneurysm that rocked her life in her late 20s. I’ll confess: I love reading or watching anything that showcases the gruesome or bizarre. My husband tells me I have the Netflix queue of someone planning a string of axe murders. So, brain aneurysm? Yes, please!

I toted Stir along with me on our road trip to Disneyland this past week, and didn’t even need the drive to and from California to read it. Forty-eight hours was all it took to polish off this immersive narrative.

Unlike the many food memoirs I’ve read before, Stir resonated with me. Fechtor manages to make deep, true statements about food’s role in bringing her back to her “normal” self after her aneurysm–without clunking sentimentality. Her eye for describing her own experiences struck me as probing and sincere, and her intelligence comes through on every page. It’s no surprise she’s A PhD candidate in Jewish literature at Harvard. Plus, her descriptions of food are nothing short of poetry, like this passage about a macaroon:

“The Hi-Rise almond macaroon is plump and squat, a round, rosy cookie with a whole almond pressed into its belly and dusted with powdered sugar. Squeeze, and and the crisp outer crust sinks into the chewy center.”

Does that not make you perfectly picture (and want to eat) a macaroon?

Several times, coming upon recipes featured at the end of nearly every chapter, I suddenly realized my need for whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, butter almond cake, cherry clafoutis. It made complete sense that these baked goods would serve as comfort food in a time of the author’s suffering and recovery. (Then again, some recipes were way out of my league, or would involve hours of preparation. To each her own.)

As someone who has had bizarre, hit-you-out-of-nowhere health issues, I must say I also found Fechtor’s life-altering surgeries and hospital stays relatable. Her resilience is incredible. There’s no way I could have responded to losing half my vision and a large chunk of my skull with anything like her optimism.

My primary criticism of the book is for its title. It seems a few more descriptive words could have better expressed the depths of Fechtor’s experience than simply Stir.

Overall, however, I highly recommend reading Fechtor’s well-told journey. Sometimes we could all use a jolt of gratitude that, whatever our troubles, at least most of us don’t require brain surgery–and a reminder of the many wonderful gifts food can bring under any circumstances.

Jerk Salmon Bowl with Avocado-Mango Salsa

Is it just me, or does it feel like it’s really trendy to eat things in bowls right now? Poke bowls, burrito bowls, Buddha bowls (what even IS a Buddha bowl?) Taco Bell has “Power Menu Bowl,” while KFC offers a mashed potato-chicken bowl, which has the dubious honor of making Time Magazine’s 10 Worst Fast Food Meals). Burrrrn.

The take-home message of the Bowl Movement (don’t think too hard about that phrase) seems to be that you can throw a wide variety of foods together in a bowl and watch them play nice as a one-dish meal. I don’t really care about being trendy, but I can definitely get behind the idea of protein, starch, fruits, and/or veggies all mixed up in one tasty package. Kinda like some other recipes I like.

This bowl I’m featuring today combines jerk-seasoned salmon, black beans, rice, and a zesty mango salsa for a refreshing, healthy catch-all dinner or lunch. The pan-frying method of cooking the salmon in this recipe gives it a restaurant-quality, almost-but-not-quite crispy on the outside texture that complements the cool sweetness and tender texture of the avocado-mango salsa. Sturdy staples of black beans and rice round out the equation. When serving, separate it into sections (as pictured), or stir it all together. There’s no wrong way to eat a bowl.

Especially if you’re observing Lent, this is a great one for meat-free days, or any time you’re looking for a light meal packed with nutrition.


Print Recipe
Jerk Salmon Bowl with Mango Salsa
This one-dish meal of salmon, beans, rice and mango salsa is packed with nutrition!
Course Main Dish, seafood
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
Course Main Dish, seafood
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
Instructions
Make the salsa:
  1. In a medium bowl, stir together avocado, mango, red onion, and cilantro. Squeeze juice of 1/2 lime onto mixture and stir again. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.
Cook the salmon:
  1. In a small bowl, combine spices (curry powder through cumin). Rub over both sides of salmon. Heat olive oil over medium-high in a large non-stick skillet. Add salmon and cook 3-5 minutes per side. Break salmon into chunks and continue to cook until no longer translucent. Remove from heat.
Assemble the bowls:
  1. Divide rice, beans, salmon, and salsa between four bowls. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

Adapted from Pinch of Yum.

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