Thursday, August 25, 2011

Excellent Lunch Psychology

It's easy to let small barriers stop you from packing lunch every day.  Maybe your lunchbox is dirty, you're out of peanut butter, or you can't find the cutting board to slice your apples on.  Maybe you overslept.  The key to a sustainable lunch-packing habit is keeping this kind of barrier low and providing little incentives to yourself.  If you have to drag yourself through a lot of extra work to pack lunch, you will find yourself buying sandwiches in the cafeteria a lot.  Willpower is like a muscle that can get tired if it's overworked, so the trick is to create easy, automatic habits.  Here are some of the tricks I use to lower the mental effort I have to put into packing lunch.
  • I decide what to pack in advance (even which sides and snacks to throw in) so that I don't have to think about it in the morning when I'm groggy and stumbling around.  I'm not terribly intelligent before breakfast, so it's a lot easier if I can pack lunch on autopilot.
  • I keep a couple of differently-sized lunchboxes around and an ample supply of tupperware in various shapes and sizes, so I never have to fuss around figuring out what to put the food in.
  • I keep nuts and dried fruit in the pantry.  If I run out of fresh snacks like apples and carrots, I can always throw in a baggie of those to go with my lunch.
But even so, packing lunch isn't trivial.  It takes some work, and I tend to get cranky if I perceive an activity as all work and no play.  That's where rewards and incentives come in.
  • I always pack dessert.  
  • I have a cool lunchbox that I enjoy using.  Actually... I collect them.
  • I've also got a brightly-colored insulated lunch bag for tupperware days.
  • I make sure lunch is delicious, so it's worth the extra effort.
  • And I pack a BIG, satisfying lunch.  Because it's not worth it if I do all that work and then I get hungry before I get home from the office. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Excellent Lunch this week: Pav Bhaji

The best way to describe pav bhaji is "Indian-spicy vegetarian sloppy joes."  It's not eaten in sandwich form, though -- instead the mashed vegetables are scooped up with toasted pieces of bread. 

We make a ton of pav bhaji at a time and then freeze it in smaller containers.  It's just as good after defrosting, since it's basically stew.  Here's how it's done:
  1. Steam all these vegetables until they're mushy enough to mash with a potato masher:
    3-4 potatoes, peeled & chunked
    1 eggplant, peeled & chunked
    1 cauliflower, chunked
    4 large carrots, chunked
    3 green peppers, chunked
  2. In your largest pot, heat about 2 teaspoons each of mustard seeds and cumin seeds in about a stick of melted butter until they start to sizzle and pop.
  3. Add a chopped onion and 5ish cloves of garlic.
  4. When they're translucent, add 2-3 chopped tomatoes.
  5. Mash all the other vegetables that you've steamed, and add them to the butter with the onions and tomatoes.  If you don't have a bowl big enough to mash them in, you can add them to the pot and then mash them.  An immersion blender also works for this.
  6. Add a whole package of pav bhaji masala.  If you don't like spicy food, you can add the masala a little at a time until you get the spice level right.
  7. Add salt to taste, more butter if you like, and ground chiles & black pepper to get the heat where you like it.  Add a little lemon juice here or save it for serving time, either way.
  8. Serve with buttered toasted buns, chopped raw onions, cilantro, and lemon wedges.
I should note that these vegetables and quantities are pretty rough.  If you've got extra carrots or not enough green peppers, don't fret.   You can add pav bhaji masala to a wide variety of vegetables with excellent results.  Once it's all mashed, no one will be able to tell you added a turnip.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Onigiri Update

Yesterday, we had a little extra time in the evening so my man F. suggested that he help me make more onigiri.  He must have really liked them -- he's usually not so enthusiastic about cooking experiments, and rarely wants to help with them.  (He makes food often, he just doesn't do it recreationally.)  So they must have been really good! 

I'm having more for lunch today.  We added a third flavor: avocado.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

KC's Excellent Onigiri Adventure

Inspired by Just Bento and the ume-shiso roll at Genki Ya, I decided to experiment with making onigiri this week. My friend M. helpfully shared this instructional video from cookingwithdog, too.  That was especially useful, because I also have a dog and I pay a lot more attention to videos if there's a dog.  Armed with no shortage of resources, I assembled all the ingredients and enlisted my long-suffering husband F. to take some photos.

These are the fillings. I used ume-shiso (pickled plum and shiso leaf) and negi-miso (green onion mixed into miso paste). I'm still not sure about umeboshi on their own, but I definitely like them with shiso leaves.

Down to Business

Start by wetting your (clean!!) hands in some salt water.

Put some rice into the palm of one hand and make a small divot for the filling.

Add about a teaspoon of filling. This one is an ume-shiso onigiri.

Add a bit more rice on top to close it off, then use your hands to shape it.

The triangle shape is not mandatory; I made ume-shiso onigiri triangle-shaped and negi-miso were barrel-shaped.


Wrap a little nori around it. Nori tastes good and makes it look pretty. I bet it also has vitamins or something.  It sticks best if the rice is still a little warm when you wrap it.

My first two onigiri. The barrel one was a little too big, I think. I made them smaller after that.

That's F's hand, hovering over the plate until the picture has been taken so he can eat one.

I wrapped these tightly in plastic wrap while they were still warm and put them in the fridge. Rice tends to get a little weird in the fridge because it dries out, but the plastic wrap should help.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hi it's Vince

Stop having boring lunches.  Stop having a boring life.

Excellent Lunch Logistics: How to Fit Packing Lunch Every Day into Your Schedule

I pack lunch every morning before work, and I am not a very disciplined person.  This would be a recipe for disaster (and for frequent trips to the disappointing salad bar at the office cafeteria) if I didn't make it easy on myself.  I have some tricks that make packing lunch less of a pain in the ass:
  • Cook a load of pre-leftovers on Sunday afternoon that can be eaten for lunch the rest of the week.  Freeze some so they don't go bad on Thursday.
  • Know everything that's going in the lunch before you start packing (perhaps the night before or even the weekend before) -- groggy predawn indecision is the enemy of a well-packed lunch.
  • Never run out of possible side dishes.  Have backups in the pantry.
  • Do the dishes when you get home from work so your lunchbox/tupperware is clean.
  • In case of dishwashing failure or laziness, be sure to have extra tupperware and/or lunch boxes.
  • Consider also having backup main dishes in case you don't cook enough lunch on Sunday.  We keep frozen samosas around most of the time, but soon we'll transition to tamales.
In the end, it all comes down to having a backup for every step of the lunch-packing process (even your brain).  Otherwise a single glitch could derail all your delicious plans and leave you lunchless.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Pack an Excellent Lunch: The Elements of Style

I Hate Sandwiches

Actually, I only hate sandwiches when they've been sitting around for several hours, like the sandwich in a packed lunch has.  Sandwiches for vegetarians are especially susceptible to the problems that beset a sandwich when it's been sitting around.  The cheese gets slimy from being next to the lettuce and tomato, the lettuce wilts, the tomatoes' texture gets strange, the bread absorbs too much moisture from the vegetable fillings.  And really, bread and cheese are quite dry and hard to eat together unless they're freshly toasted.  Who's got a toaster oven in the office?  Not me.  Honestly, I'd rather eat all the parts of a sandwich individually than suffer through a sandwich that was assembled the night before.  A bit of salad or grilled vegetables with bread and cheese on the side works.  Sandwiches just don't. That rules out what's probably the number one lunch in the US. 

A Dazzling Array of Side Dishes

I cook lunch for the whole week all at once, on Sundays.  I'm not home much in the evenings, and that allows me to have delicious lunches without becoming an insomniac.  It also means I eat the same thing for lunch every day most weeks, which is why side dishes are crucial.  I keep around a few "staple" snacks, and lunch isn't complete without at least one of them.  I'm more likely to enjoy the main dish I pack if it's not the only thing in my lunch.  Monotony ruins a lunch, ad variety elevates it.  Here are some of the snacks I like:
  • apples with peanut butter
  • carrots or other vegetables with hummus
  • nuts
  • dried cherries (usually with nuts)
  • berries, with or without yogurt
  • salads (especially non-leafy salads, which don't wilt as quickly)

    Sauce for Everything

    Sauce is a crucial ally in my anti-monotony crusade.  Sure, samosas taste pretty good on their own, but they're better with chutney.  They're even better if you have tamarind chutney and green chutney.  Apples are similarly great on their own, but with peanut butter they're more filling and they contribute a sweet-savory combination taste to the meal instead of just being fruit.  Carrots go with hummus; they're boring on their own.  When I make Big Gujarati Lunch, of course I include pickles and pureed mango sauce too.  Sauces and garnishes keep food interesting and remind us that even poor, maligned, packed-from-home, eaten-quickly lunch deserves to be delicious.

    Always Pack Dessert

    Lunch deserves to be delicious.  We deserve to enjoy our lunches, not just to refuel so we can make it to dinner time.  Dessert is there to remind us of that.  It doesn't have to be a lot -- often I just pack a couple of ounces of dark chocolate.  It just has to be present.  The way I like to pack lunch turns it into a true meal, and a meal is more satisfying when there are a variety of dishes and a dessert.

    Can I Microwave This?  Can This Keep in the Fridge? 

    I've made a big deal of variety, but this last point limits the variety of foods that work well in a packed lunch.  Food I pack has to be good cold, or I have to be able to reheat it in the microwave.  It also has to survive overnight (or even a day or two) in the fridge.  I don't pack things that have to be reheated in the oven or toaster.  I never dress leafy salads beforehand -- I use tiny salad dressing containers to take dressing along separately.  Basically, I think lunch should taste good when you eat it, not make you wistful for what it must have tasted like when it was freshly cooked. 

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Excellent Lunch 2: Cold Soba Noodles

    Yesterday F. and I stopped by Reliable Market to pick up some groceries, but we'd just been at jiujitsu practice so we were tired, hungry, and impulsive.  At the store they were giving out samples of kimbap and cold soba noodles, both of which were delicious.  We took some kimbap home to eat for lunch right away, and bought some soba noodles, which we cooked up this afternoon.  The bottled soba sauce they had wasn't vegetarian, so we made some of our own.  The noodles were great with the sauce, ground radish, green onions, tofu, wasabi, and shredded nori.

    1. The dipping sauce I used is called tsukejiru. Here's the recipe I used, modified from The Japanese Kitchen: 6 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 teaspoons tamari, 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 cups of mild veggie broth, and a chunk of dried kelp.  I put the kelp in there because the original recipe uses fish broth, and the kelp helps replace the ocean-y taste but is still vegetarian.  Let the sauce cool.
    2. In a food processor, grind a daikon radish or one of those big Korean non-daikon radishes, depending on how strong you like your radish taste.
    3. Slice some green onions.
    4. Slice some nori into pretty shreds for garnishing.
    5. Cut some fresh tofu into cubes.
    6. Cook some soba noodles.  Run them under cold water immediately after they're done so they don't overcook.
    7. I think the "official" way to eat this is to add wasabi, ground radish, green onions, and nori to a small bowl of dipping sauce and then dip the noodles in, but I couldn't find a logistical way to include the tofu cubes I wanted in there.  Instead, I topped the noodles with all the garnishes and tofu cubes, then poured a little sauce into the plate.

    Excellent Lunch 1: Bi Bim Bap

    Lunch packed for tomorrow: brown rice bi bim bap with carrots, broccoli, bean sprouts, enoki mushrooms, baby bok choy, shitake mushrooms, and fried tofu.

    1. Cook some rice.  I have a rice cooker, so that's all there is to this step.
    2. Choose 4-6 kinds of vegetables, and slice them thinly or cut them into suitably small pieces.  
    3. For each vegetable, you have two choices.  EITHER: blanch them in some boiling water, then toss them in a little sesame oil and salt, OR pan-fry them in some sesame oil.  This choice really depends on the vegetable.  I blanched the baby bok choy and carrots, but stir-fried the mushrooms.
    4. If you like, fry some tofu.  Or cook some meat, if you swing that way.
    5. For each serving, first scoop a good amount of cooked rice into the bowl.  Top with about 1/4 cup of each kind of the various vegetables.  It looks nice if you keep each vegetable in its own zone, like in the picture.  
    6. Put the tofu in the middle.
    7. Put a just-barely-fried egg.  You want it extra runny, because if you're packing this in your lunch you'll probably have to microwave it, and that will cook the egg a little extra.
    8. Squeeze on some bi bim bap sauce (gochujang, which you can get at your local korean grocery).