Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Because a penny saved is a penny that can be spent on sushi dinners: What to pack for lunch

[Image via Bust]
I like to cook, and I like to eat my cooking.  In fact, I would usually prefer to eat my own cooking than eat at a mediocre restaurant or take-out place.  And yet, that's what I do, day-in and day-out, for lunch.  I am just too busy/not motivated enough/not quite cheap enough to actually buckle down and pack my own lunch.  Maybe this summer, when my schedule calms down, I'll finally change my ways.  I will motivate myself by telling myself that any money I save on packed lunches translates into money I can spend trying out those nice restaurants throughout the city for dinner!  Also, new tupperware (BPA free, I hope?) is always nice!

Here to help me in my newfound resolve is our old friend, the internet.  Here are the best ideas for packed lunch the web has to offer.  Please, please share your own in the comments!

Lemondrop has a plan.  $25 plus 1 hour prep buys you a work-week full of yummy lunch.  Their best idea?  Make an Asian dressing that doubles as a noodle sauce, and use it to dress up fettuccine and pre-mixed salad:
Asian Dressing/Sauce
1. Peel one clove of garlic and throw it in the blender or food processor, blending briefly to dice.
2. Add 4 tbsp. sesame oil, 2 tbsp. soy sauce, 1 tbsp. vinegar and a pinch of sugar.
3. Blend for about 20 seconds, until the sauce becomes a rich brown.
4. Pour the sauce into Tupperware and stick in the fridge.
The always entertaining Bust magazine has three great ideas for sandwiches, with fillings that can be made ahead.  Their best idea?  A customizable, "classy" club sammy:
Classy Classic Club
Toast 3 slices of white bread. Mix three plops of mayo with one plop of Dijon mustard, and spread some on one slice. Add lettuce and sliced turkey (sub with chicken or ham if you like), top with another slice of toast, and lay as much bacon, lettuce, and tomato as you like on top. Cover with the third slice of toast. You’ll need a toothpick to keep this baby together until you can put it in your mouth. For a veggie version, replace the turkey with avocado, use tempeh bacon instead of pork, and add a slice of Swiss cheese. Pescetarians can swap the turkey for smoked salmon and the bacon for sliced red onion. Add plain mayo mixed with fi nely chopped scallions and a spoonful of capers.
Raw-foodies and vegans are especially in need of packed lunch ideas, because it can be hard to find appropriate food in most neighborhood restaurants.  Luckily, Gena over at Choosing Raw is to the rescue, with her typical work-week lunch menu.  Her best idea?  Awesome-sounding homemade salad dressings to turn a simple salad into something savory and special, like this butternut squash one:
Butternut Squash Dressing
1 heaping cup cooked butternut squash
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp nama shoyu (ed note: or soy sauce)
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin
1 heaping tbsp agave nectar
Blend all ingredients in a high speed blender till smooth. This one is especially delicious served over dark leafy greens, or when paired with pumpkin seeds!
Of course our friend Martha has some ideas, though I somehow doubt she packs her lunch.  Her best idea?  A chopped salad for one (with chicken that could be substituted for tofu or cheese for vegetarians):
Chopped salad
3 cups romaine hearts, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 plum tomato, chopped
1/2 rib celery, chopped
1 (2-inch) English cucumber, chopped
6 to 8 green beans, blanched and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon herbs, such as basil, chervil, or parsley, chopped
3 ounces cooked chopped chicken breast
Blue Cheese Vinaigrette

Place romaine, tomato, celery, cucumber, green beans, herbs, and chicken in a large bowl; toss to combine. Drizzle with vinaigrette just before serving; toss to combine.
For the more gourmet-inclined, Food and Wine had a couple chefs weigh in (recipes bottom-right).  These recipes take a bit more prep time, but would provide a nice break in the routine.  Their best idea?  A southwest take on quinoa:
Santa Fe Quinoa Salad
3/4 cup quinoa (about 5 ounces)
1 1/2 cups water
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
Freshly ground pepper
One 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
One 3-ounce jar cocktail onions, drained and finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, combine the quinoa, water and a pinch of salt; bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Spread the quinoa on a baking sheet; refrigerate for about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, in a small skillet, toast the cumin seeds over high heat, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 2 minutes; transfer to a blender. Add the lime juice and oil and blend. Season with salt and pepper.  Pour the dressing into a bowl and add the black beans, bell pepper, cilantro and cocktail onions. Scrape the quinoa into the bowl, season with salt and pepper and serve.
And there's more!  Lifehacker has some ideas for making the package more polished and palatable, LA Times has a list of 40 meals that can be tossed in a sack, the Boston Globe goes the mix-in route for yummy-sounding sandwiches and salads, and Serious Eats has a catalog of the best portable lunch recipes.

Readers, please share your best tips for packed lunch or your go-to recipes in the comments!


  1. An "Asian" dressing?

    Any specific place in Asia? Or just, you know, all of it? Because cuisine is....somewhat diverse across this Asia you speak of.

    It's pretty othering to encounter this on here.

  2. Hey Seitzk, I couldn't agree with you more that the cuisine of Asia is diverse and oft misidentified. But, I pulled the recipe as-is and didn't change it because of course this is not an authentic recipe from some specific place in Asia, but rather uses the flavors of what we in America think of as "Asian" cuisine. The idea of using soy sauce in salad dressing (or eating a salad made from lettuce) would be considered bizarre in most Asian kitchens, but it's become a standard of "Asian" fare here, and as an Asian, I have no problem with that! You're right, though, that next time Asian should be rendered in quotes when used thusly.


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