Friday, 21 October 2011

SmartCooks Bento Box Lunches 1-5:

SmartCooks here finally....

Where were we before I got distracted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer?...  Oh yes, the ipad is propped up against the TV and held upright by a broken cutting board and a salt and pepper shaker as I watch the demon fantasy world and begin some serious Bento-ing on a Sunday night.  My goal is 1-5 dishes to mix and match for five days of Bento lunches.  I've got a serious case of Bento bug!

By the way, I found some lovely premium bottles of Mirin and Soy Sauce at T&T Supermarket .  Brands and quality you just don't see at Blob-blaws. T&T is a super big store and Husband and I have learned to pick our times to go there quite carefully as it is often jammed to the doors. 

This weekend I'm planning on a mission to find Sushi Rice, Sushi Vinegar, a Sushi Bamboo rolling mat, Shichimi pepper and Yuzu.... I'm planning vegetarian sushi in Bento boxes next week lunches.  More later on this culinary adventure or disaster....  I'm still watching the How-To Roll YouTube videos ... (I can already rock so now I have to learn to roll.. bad joke I know).

First, the staples: Bento Book and Bento Boxes.


The Bento cookbook is found at Just Bento website.  If you visit the site, you must read the hilarious entries about "The Guy" (aka her boyfriend or husband) making his first Bentos.  It's quite cute.  Not sure his reaction is quite the same as hers or mine but it's a nice read.  Clearly, they are both committed to the Bento experience and lifestyle. 

Makiko Itoh (the author) says the ideally balanced bento has a 1:1:2 (or more) ratio of carbs:protein:vegetables, meaning the half the lunchtime Bento should include vegeys.  No problemo.... 

Recipes below were the basics for the boxes.  I added kale, micro greens, pickes, a cut up Fuji Apple (in keeping with the theme) etc.


I chose two Bento boxes for the week.

The first one is Ojyu, a red-patterned, two-tier box with black lacquer on the inside and a matching drawstring lunch bag.  I use it often, with a pair of chopsticks (not shown). It's from the Sakura collection, and features some of the traditional Japanese patterns and symbols.  The white, black and red flowers represent the cherry blossom, and symbolize ephemeral beauty... fragile, delicate, colourful.  This box is one of many in the Sakura series that I saw at CasaBento, which seems to be based in Europe or France somewhere.  Anyway, very pretty. 

The second Bento Box is called Shikiri Box (or "dividers" as you can see from the picture it is aptly named) but the name on top of the box says "Ideal".  So I will go with the latter. 

It actually has six small compartments but one side is easily removed and leaves four compartments.  The chopsticks fit under the lid and the whole Box locks snugly (there's handles on the sides that lock the lid to the base).  Very clever.  And perfect for what I made for the week. 

Bento Box Accessories

I haven't gone to accessories and decorating the Bentos ... yet. 

There's something so nice about opening up a Colourful, Flavourful, Cheery, Happy, Giggly Bento Box on a Dreary Week in Capital Town.  The Bento websites are full of a full range of inventive little lunch box accessories to make manga characters, animals or even scenes.  You can decorate the top of the rice or make rice balls and decorate with apricots or other fruits.  Seaweed (nori) is black and is also fun for decorating.  Most decorations are edible.
Wanna bet I try my own before too long?

The Bento Box-ers Recipes for the Week 
(Adapted from the Just Bento cookbook)

Recall that a traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more type of pickled or cooked vegetables. So that was goal #1 for Bentos for the week.  I also cooked in quantity Sunday night so that I wouldn't have to do any serious lunch cooking for most of the week .... just pack up the Bento for the next day.  That was goal #2 and it's working so far.... it's Wednesday night. 

I made five dishes Sunday night, none of them difficult; in fact, very quick to assemble. I mixed and matched throughout the week with various meats or eggs.   

Bento Box-er #1:  Spicy Quinoa Pilau with Vegetables

1 cup cooked quinoa (I used white)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1.5 ounces of pancetta (could use bacon)
1/2 small red onion, chopped
1 garlic glove, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 yellow sweet pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
1/2 small zucchini, sliced into small rounds
2 cups of no-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp allspice
1 cup of leftover chopped, cooked vegetables 
(e.g., Japanese turnips, black radish and carrots)
1/2 to 1 tsp of harissa or other hot red chili paste (I used Sriracha), to taste  

Rinse the quinoa in cold water and drain well in a fine-mesh colander (actually, I used a fine-mesh cooking bag that I found for doing ice cream custards). 

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over high heat.  Add the pancetta (or bacon) and sauté for 3-4 minutes.  Add the onion, garlic and yellow pepper.  Add the quinoa and sauté until the seeds start to brown.  Add the stock and bring to a boil.  Put in the bay leaf, allspice, zucchini, and chopped vegetables.  Lower the heat, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has just about evaporated.  Season with salt and pepper.  Turn off the heat and cover.  Let stand for a few minutes until the quinoa has absorbed any remaining liquid.  Stir in the harissa or red chili paste (Sriracha).  This is delicious hot or cold. It keeps for 2-3 days (3 days is my maximum). 

((((A word about quinoa since I'm new to it.  (I still can't pronounce it properly.... "keen-wah").  It originated in the times of the South Andean Inca populations.  It's supposedly the new, rediscovered 'superfood' just like brown rice or couscous was a few years back. It's a grain or rather a seed from the Goosefoot plant. It's a complete protein, has high levels of iron and fibre, is gluten free, low in sodium and, oh yeah, it comes in very pretty colours, actually 120 of them ranging from pinks to red, ivories to white to almost black but red, white and black are mainly cultivated for consumption.   It has a delicious nutty flavour. It needs to be rinsed before cooking because it has a hard outer shell (easily rinsed off) that keeps birds away.  It used to be hard to find (Herb and Spice type stores) but I noticed Blob-blaws is now carrying it in a package like couscous. It's a keeper in my pantry.))))  

Bento Box-er #2:  Shredded Carrot and Celeriac Salad

Winter Root Vegetable Slaw
This recipe is super easy, very colourful and stays fresh for up to a week in a tightly covered container.  I used it in four days of Bento lunches and will throw out the remaining bits tonight.  

Celeriac looks so ugly in its natural root state.  In fact, most of the websites I looked at call it the ugly prince of the vegetable world.  Another site called it the "troll's orb of warts and roots".  Appetizing not. 

But, once peeled, the underlying flesh root is a perfect ivory colour and unblemished.  The true prince emerges with a taste which is a blend of celery and parsley.  Half a cup is 30 calories so can't go wrong there...) and contains no fat.  I prefer it to potatoes.  It's apparently been around since the ancient times of Homer and is known as "celeriac", "celery root", "knob celery" etc.  It is used widely in French cuisine, especially in a dish called "celerie remoulade" which I will definitely try one of these days soon.  It's becoming a staple of my diet. 

1 large celeriac, peeled thickly to remove the knobby warty skin
2 large or 3 medium carrots (heirloom are nicest)
juice of 1 large lemon
1/2 tsp of sea salt
black pepper to taste
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp olive oil

Slice the celeriac and carrots into long, thin shreds.  I used a mandoline and a vegetable peeler would work just as well.  In a bowl, toss the shredded vegetables with the other ingredients.  Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. It tastes better as it mellows for a few hours.   

Bento Box-er #3:  Chicken Kijiyaki

In Japanese, "kijiyaki" refers to a traditional way of cooking bland foods such as chicken or tofu so that they mimic a delicacy in feudal Japan called blue pheasant.  Personally, I would never eat such a thing but I DID enjoy the taste of this chicken and it was super, super simple.  

The only modification I made was to use boneless, no skin, chicken breast.  The original recipe suggests chicken thigh with skin in order to get a crispy skin.  I can do without the extra calories so opted, instead, for the no-skin, organic, hormone-free, chicken breasts that I buy from Saslov's.  I almost always have some on hand in the freezer.   

The recipe is meant for 1 serving but is easily increased to 2 or 3 if you don't mind having the same thing two days in a row (I certainly don't...)

4 oz boneless chicken thigh with skin (above I explain why I went with boneless, skinless breast)
1 Tbsp mirin
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
Shichimi pepper, to taste (it's 7 spices and similar to chili pepper.  I used poppy seeds as I didn't have any).  Link explains what it is.  

I cut the chicken so that it wasn't more than 1" or so thick.  Pierce the chicken all over on the skin side (if using; if not, just one side).  This helps the meat to lay flat in the pan and cook evenly.  Place a dry nonstick frying pan over high heat and put in the chicken, skin side down.  Fry until the skin is brown and crispy, pressing down on chicken occasionally.  Turn the chicken and cook until done.  (I just made sure the chicken was a golden brown on all sides.)  It's done when you poke the middle with a fork or knife tip and the juices run clear. 

Remove the chicken from the pan and wipe the pan clean with a paper towel.  Put the mirin, soy sauce and sugar in the pan over medium heat, and stir until the sugar melts.  When the sauce bubbles, return the chicken to the pan and coat it with the sauce on both sides.  Remove from the pan to a plate and let cool.  Slice and pack it up.  Sprinkle with shichimi pepper if using. (I sprinkled some poppy seeds.)

Bento Box Box-er #4:  Cucumber and Turnip Salad with Yuzu

Yuzu is a tart, slightly bitter citrus fruit that is common in Japanese cuisine and apparently becoming more available in North America.  I plan to look for it during my next T&T adventure.  It looks like a small grapefruit or large lemon and can be yellow or green.  Its flavour is similar to lime so I substituted that for yozu until I find some. 

This salad is very refreshing and crunchy.  The amounts in the recipe will last for about 4 bentos. 

(Small aside:  the silicone cup holding the salad is also very Japanese bento-ish. Depending on your Box, the cups are used as dividers. I bought two on-line when I bought the Bentos and use them often especially in the Ojyu Bento.)   

1 medium English cucumber (or a garden one is fine).  Just Bento recommends English because typically it is narrower and has less seeds. 
2 small Japanese turnips, or 1/2 large Western turnip. I encourage you to try the Japanese turnips.. the flavour is mild, tender and crunchy. 
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp grated or dried yuzu peel, or lime peel
1/2 Tbsp fresh or bottled yuzu juice, or lime juice

Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise.  Scoop out seeds with spoon if needed.  Slice thinly, using a vegetable slicer or mandoline. 

Slice the turnips and cut the slices into pieces about the same size as the cucumber slices
Massage the salt into the vegetables with your hands until the vegetables are limp.  Squeeze well to expel excess moisture and discard it.  Add the yuzu peel and juice and mix well.  Let it rest, covered, for a minimum of 20 minutes, overnight if possible.

Bento Box-er #5:  Meatball Bento
Any recipe for meatballs will fit the bill here.  Just make them small and perfect sizes for a Bento box.  However, in keeping with the theme, I chose a recipe with ingredients like Mirin Sauce and Saké (and can sip on it too!).  I could have frozen them but made enough for 3 days, plus a meatloaf for Husband and I.  Delicious. 

1/2 lb ground pork (hormone-free, lean)
1/2 lb ground beef (hormone-free, lean)
2 tsp soy sauce 
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I prefer Panko)  
2 tsp saké
2 tsp grated ginger root
2 chopped green scallions 
1 tsp sea salt
2 Tbsp cornstarch
Olive oil for the wok (or Pam spray if really trying to go lean. I put a tiny bit of oil.  I've seen some recipes say you can also use a deep fryer.... I didn't)

Sweet and Sour Glaze (optional):
1 1/4 cups chicken broth (low-sodium)
4 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sea salt
6 Tbsp rice vinegar

For the Meatballs:
Combine the ground meats, soy sauce, sake, ginger, onion, salt, panko breadcrumbs and starch and mix well. Form into 30 or so (1-inch) balls. Heat the oil in a wok. Cook the meatballs until well browned. Remove with a slotted spoon or Chinese deep-fry ladle. Drain on paper towels.  (Note: Make the meatballs the night before you plan to fix the bento boxes.)

For the Sweet and Sour Glaze:
Combine the broth, sugar, soy sauce, salt and rice vinegar in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat. Dissolve the cornstarch in 1 tsp of water and add to the broth mixture. Continue cooking until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken, about 1 minute.

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