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.

stir-fried cabbage with garlic, dried cranberries and balsamic vinegar — delicious! straightforward! so tasty! I used a red cabbage.  Something to note: red cabbage isn’t just a great natural dye for eggs and rice, it’s also a great natural dye for your shirt, jeans, counter, sink, and floors, so, you know, be careful.

konnyaku and tofu kinpira (second recipe on the page) — weird texture, rather nice speckly neutral colors, delicious.  I used deep-fried tofu as directed but it never browned in the slightest. I finally gave up after 20 minutes. I asked her how long it’s supposed to take, roughly, just a few minutes or longer? but she just assumed I’d used the wrong type of tofu and wouldn’t answer me.  I’ve noticed she often doesn’t answer the stupider questions, which seems reasonable enough, but I must say it stung having my perfectly reasonable question classed with the idiots.  : /  Sigh.  Anyway.

I was very careful to cut the konnyaku into little shreds so it couldn’t possibly KILL ME, but I think I overcooked it — it changed color almost immediately, but since the tofu had taken so long I kept stirring for a while anyway instead of proceding — and it ended up being very, very rubbery, like overcooked octopus, much more so than shirataki noodles.  Still, between the sesame and the chili flakes and the fat, this stuff was de-licious.  Now I want to kinpira everything.

shirataki noodles — I followed her prep instructions (a de-stenchifying advance boil) on a couple packs and used them in a pad thai.  Amazingly filling.  The days I had these for lunch I hardly ate dinner.  One is naturally suspicious of ‘miracle diet food’ that isn’t really processed by the body, but… I can’t deny it worked.

salted salmon — I didn’t really follow these directions because my fridge is humid and she specifies a dry fridge; instead I did a basic gravlax procedure.  What I followed were her freezing and cooking instructions — which would have worked better if I hadn’t overlooked the part about cutting it into bite-sized pieces!  So although the results kind of resembled canned tuna, you can’t blame her recipe for that.  What I appreciate is the way the procedure demystified things for me. Whether you like the results or not, anyone can cook salmon this way.  I appreciate that.

sushi rice — well, the version I’ve been making is so bastardized it hardly counts, but at least I’m trying.  I’ve made sushi five times now… the fourth and fifth iterations were almost convincing.  I was ridiculously proud.

miso-marinated eggs — very interesting; quite tasty.  A strong yet subtle flavor.  Easy to make.  I made three and ate them on successive days. Surprisingly, you can taste the honey as well as the miso (the honey sort of smooths out the flavor).  I’ve been thinking about other marinades to try, now.  What do you think of honey-mustard with smoked paprika? Or what about ketchup or barbeque sauce? Hm.  Just an idea.  One drawback: these — sadly — have somewhat put me off the idea of hardboiled egg molds, which I’d initially been excited about.  But if eggs absorb flavors this well, then wouldn’t they absorb the taste of plastic?

beef soboro — not bad. A little gross, but tasty.  Greasy, sweet, salty — like Japanese-flavored bacon.  Except in texture, of course, as this is ground meat.  All the cooking makes it very chewy.  It’s supposed to be eaten in small quantities on rice, and I think will be good for that.  I’ve frozen some portions, which she says works well, so we’ll see.  *On seeing the frozen results, I realize why I thought this was sort of gross: the ground beef I used was too fatty.  In my neighborhood, you have to go out of your way to get leaner ground beef, but that’s what I’ll do next time.

orange juice carrots — ugh, horrible!  Almost inedibly salty.  The first real loser in the bunch.  I know New Zealanders mean something different by “tablespoon” than we do; it makes me wonder if Switzerland and Japan also use different measures that go by the same name.  Because this was absolutely disgusting.  [On later thought: maybe I spilled more salt in there than I realized?]  I would try making it again, because the orange juice-hot pepper-maple syrup combo is intriguing, but leave out the salt entirely and use less soy sauce.   (The carrots come out a pretty color, because the orange juice is absorbed into the cores.  I didn’t throw them out; I tried rinsing them once, and maybe after they’ve gotten cold in the fridge they’ll taste less vile.  I’m thinking as a last resort I could add vinegar and treat them as a pickle.)  *These have developed a more complex, dark kind of flavor in the fridge.  Very interesting.  I still don’t quite like them, but they’re cool.

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2 Responses to “To explain”

  1. arkonite Says:

    Carrot kinpira is so much nicer as a bento filler than orange juice carrots! Beef soboro is also an aquired taste, but it does complement plain white rice extremely well.
    Have you tried any furikake on your rice yet? It adds a nice flavour and you can add as little or as much as you’d like depending on taste. There are so many different types too. I have a red shiso one which works very well with plain rice, almost like ume, but not quite!

    • Nora Says:

      Oh, hello! I entirely believe you about carrot kinpira: the konnyaku/tofu kinpira I made was cannot-stop-eating delicious. The lady who writes Just Bento said you can kinpira most any vegetable and I INTEND TO.

      That said, I’ve been thinking maybe I accidentally poured too much salt into the orange juice carrots and didn’t notice…. It was definitely my fault in the case of the beef soboro, I figured out later that the ground beef I used wasn’t lean enough. It tasted great, it was just nasty-greasy.

      I haven’t gotten to the furikake stage yet! I’ve been reading bento sites for weeks to pass the time and only recently began actually cooking and even packing a few lunches. I wasn’t convinced I’d actually be voluntarily eating brown rice more than once or twice, so making rice-flavorings didn’t seem like the place to start. I do have a little can of nanami togarashi that I’ve tried shaking on rice… just to play along! : ) I’ll look out for shiso furikake, thanks: our local stores mainly have seaweed & egg.


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