Square Meals cooks when you don’t want to

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerJust like home-cooked: Pepperonata-braised chicken with rice and greens is among the tasty dishes Square Meals serves

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerJust like home-cooked: Pepperonata-braised chicken with rice and greens is among the tasty dishes Square Meals serves

Last week, working on a big deadline, I became a time-strapped shut-in. During the day, I sustained myself on caffeine, hummus and scrambled eggs.

For dinner, I could’ve piled up greasy takeout boxes, or shamefully let my girlfriend cook without help. Instead I called Square Meals, Nob Hill’s organic, locally sourced whole-meal preparation service. 
Like Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, Square Meals adds farmers market flair to healthful, well-paired meal combinations. You can pick your food up or eat in the small cafe, but it’s the delivery option — free anywhere in The City — that really sets it apart.
Unlike cartons of Mission Chinese you tear into like a feral beast, these meals are delivered at room temperature in the late afternoon. Then when dinner approaches, it’s on you to sauté the braised chicken breast and kale. You warm the pea soup in a saucepan. You, um, put the salad in a bowl.
You’ve saved the trouble of menu planning, shopping and all the attendant prep work. But you still get to spend 15 minutes behind the stove, smelling herbs and spices, stirring, testing for doneness. You’re cooking, sort of!
Square Meals is die-hard about rotating its menu; besides the turkey meatloaf and the ribollita soup, every week is a snowflake. It pre-empts your kids from whining, “Pork chops again?!”
Because you can’t order the same meals I did, I’ll just give an overview.
One entree was a succulent little square of king salmon, topped with cipolline-allspice creme fraiche. The fillet was thoughtfully delivered half-uncooked, ensuring it didn’t shrivel during the reheat. 
A skin-on chicken breast was generously portioned and melt-tender, braised with peppers, onions and tomato cubes. And the veggie entrée was cute: little 8-ball squash halves stuffed with mushrooms, mozzarella, queso fresco and herby quinoa.
Some sides were lacking, like the wee cranberry bean salad (nine  cranberry beans!) or the Farmers Market Salad, made with just lettuce, bell peppers and a few papery cucumber slices. 
But the charred corn and smashed potato salads were picnic-perfect companions for some meaty St. Louis-style ribs. The lemony bulgur wasn’t bad, either. 
As for the mainstays, the light, barbecue sauce-drizzled turkey meatloaf was given a pleasant lift by its “secret” blend of cottage cheese and panko. And the summer ribollita was a simple, homey stew, something I might have thrown together with leftover veggies in the crisper. 
That was the toughest part about Square Meals. The food veered so near to my own home-cooked dinners that it embarrassed me to have someone else make it. A mild scent of failure wafted up with the garlic in the sauteed kale. I’m pretty sure the pea soup called me a bum.
Are you the type who goes to a farm-to-table restaurant and gripes “I could’ve cooked this,” even if the food was excellent? Square Meals might heighten that sensation, especially because you’re eating off your own dishware in your own home. 
But if you can embrace the fact that a competent chef spared you all the heavy lifting, and brought it to your front door, it will seem like pure luxury.  
Bonus tip: It’s not listed on the menu, but you can add Batter Bakery sweets to your deliveries. I strongly recommend this.

Square Meals

Location: 2127 Polk St. (at Broadway), S.F. 
Contact: (415) 674-1069; www.squaremealssf.com
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Price range: $14 to $26 for whole meals; $7 to $26 for a la carte dishes
Recommended dishes: Turkey meatloaf ($9), ribollita ($7 per pint); other dishes vary by week
Credit cards: All major
Note: Order before 8 p.m. for delivery the following day

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