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. 

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