To explain

February 22, 2010

why I called a packed lunch a bento, pretentious as that looks.  Lately I’ve gotten fascinated by this site, Just Bento. I was googling around trying to find ideas for brown bag lunches, since I find it hard to go for more than a few days of bland sandwiches and depressing apple slices before giving up and buying all my work meals again.  But this site has been very helpful.

The bento strategy, as I understand it from these sites, is interestingly different from American ideas of dieting/healthy eating/convenient cooking:

American – eat large quantities of low-calorie food, so that you always feel full; keep things as close to raw as possible to retain maximum nutrients; fruit is good for you, salt and white sugar are not; make one-pot or one-skillet meals for convenience’s sake.

Bento –  eat small quantities of food, creating a sense of satiety through high-protein foods, nice visual design, and variety (often five or six items in one lunch); cook everything so as to make it more compact, thus fitting in more nutrients per cubic inch;  fruit appears to be viewed as junk food, while sodium and white sugar are everywhere; cook lots of separate dishes (for variety, see above).

One advantage I can see is that if you can get used to the smaller portion sizes for lunch, presumably you’ll get used to smaller portion sizes all the time, which would be helpful for losing weight, as well as being thriftier and more environmentally sustainable.

One disadvantage is that if you don’t get used to the smaller portions, then there you are with a fridge full of addictively salty-sweet-hot delicious things that are supposed to be used in small quantities next to plain rice and piles of steamed vegetables.  But are you going to steam a head of bok choy at 11 o’clock at night when you’re walking by the fridge and that tofu kinpira is calling your name?  No… it’s not likely.  You’re just going to dive in there with a fork.  *cough*  Is what might happen.  Have happened.  Did happen.  That stuff was really good!

Anyway, the Just Bento site’s approach to recipes is relevant to the actual purpose of this blog, which I haven’t even mentioned yet.  But I’ve been putting off and redoing the introductory posts for so long I thought I might as well start posting the things that are currently interesting me and go back to the intro later.  Basically, my goal was to figure out a) why can’t I cook? b) what kinds of recipes or other approach to cooking instruction are useful or harmful for a beginner? c) specifically, what happens when I follow recipes from publications that purport to make things foolproof for a beginner, such as Cook’s Illustrated?

Maki of Just Bento is almost the anti-Cook’s Illustrated: she keeps things very simple, just a few steps, briefly described. A lot of the time this is helpful, as it makes it easy to understand what you’re doing and remember it for next time, and it’s cool that so much flavor can be gotten so simply.  And she gives lots of useful freezing, thawing, and fridge storage instructions — something I wish more cookbooks did, because that’s so important.  The downside is she often leaves out potentially crucial information such as how long to cook something for, so be prepared for some experimentation.

These are the recipes I’ve tried so far:

stir-fried cabbage with garlic, dried cranberries and balsamic vinegar

konnyaku and tofu kinpira

shirataki noodles

salted salmon

sushi rice

miso-marinated eggs

beef soboro

orange juice carrots

My notes on the results after the cut.

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February 22, 2010


Monday, Feb. 23: 'packed lunch' at home

So while I’ve twice packed lunches vaguely trying to follow the Just Bento guidelines (I sound like I’m obsessed with numbering and listing things, don’t I?) this was the first time it was all Asian food. Only I didn’t pack it, just ate it at home.  I did prep the whole thing in about 10 minutes, which was great, not to mention good practice.

Contents: 1 cup of brown rice (from freezer, heated in nonstick pan; maybe not as nice as fresh, but eh, I’m not that fond of rice anyway, and it saved a lot of time); beef soboro from fridge, with some of the grease drained out; orange juice carrots from fridge (I realized after taking the photo that this was too many carrots, proportionally, and put some away);  briefly boiled baby spinach with sesame seeds and rice vinegar (a nice contrast to the other things); and frozen Trader Joe’s edamame, boiled for a few minutes in the spinach water.

Verdict: I ate it too fast (it’s the soboro, it’s so candylike and moreish, it’s hard to stop).  The mix of one super-seasoned food with a bunch of bland ones worked better than I was expecting — you just keep stirring things around.  I didn’t feel very good for the rest of the day and ended up supplementing with handfuls of dried cranberries and pistachio nuts before dinner, which can’t be good, but I never feel too good on a Monday after a late night and a bottle of wine, so I don’t think that counts as evidence of whether this type of meal is filling and satisfying for me or not.  It was definitely fast and fun.  Next time I’ll try to let it cool down before I start eating, so I don’t have that drive to “finish it while the soboro’s still hot!”

(do not laugh at my) sushi!

February 19, 2010

haha 'sushi'

Made Friday, Feb. 19: My fifth (and best) attempt

My fourth round of sushi pretty much held together between chopsticks, but this, the fifth, was the first that could be confidently eaten with chopsticks.  It would in no way impress or be tolerated by anyone if I tried to pass it off as real sushi, but just as something for my own personal dinner, it made me ridiculously proud.  The filling is bits of miso-marinated egg plus bits of cucumber ‘salad’ (more like pickles made with rice vinegar and sesame oil — adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe) and the rice is brown.   It was a nice subtle taste, although I preferred the avocado and cooked salmon ones I’d made previously.  Avocado makes everything better.

February 18, 2010


My first, no, second 'bento' (first photographed)

I know penne and salad looks like a rookie mistake, but the pasta (mushrooms and roasted veg) was a smushable leftover and the leaves are mostly holding tzatziki cucumber dip.  The bag has dried cranberries, a miso-marinated egg and a chunk of cheddar cheese in addition to the apple and carrots.  The box is 700ml; I had some coffee with too much cream (seriously: ugh) in the afternoon and ended up not eating the apple or the cheese.  So for two meals and a snack, this was a good amount of food.