Saturday, January 31, 2009

Accidental Friday Bento

This pretty little lunch was un-freakin-necessary since Jan was planning to go to lunch with his friend Roley. However he ate it for supper and it got a good grade.

From lower right he had: Spicy Indian lentil balls (yum!) and some baby carrots, pears slices under cheese flowers alongside bitter melon atjar ketimun, a baby greens salad with cherry tomatoes and black olives, key limes for dressing; and Ak-Mak crackers with a mini-Snickers bar.

You will find many different lentil ball recipes on the internet. I based mine on this one
but substituted brown rice for the whole wheat bread crumbles, and I had to add an egg to get binding for ball formation (they were too crumbly otherwise). But they are really good and talk about cheap comfort food!!

We joke about losing all our retirement fund in the current economic meltdown, so we (seriously) collect really cheap recipes. This one is definitely going in the "What to Eat Instead of Catfood?" file.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How do I love thee, Mr. Bento?

Let me count the ways, since Avie owns Mr. Bento too and we will be sharing our Mr. Bento secrets before too long I hope.

There are two styles of Mr. Bento, a thermally insulated lunch 'system' made by Zojirushi (you love their rice cooker, and their seed grinder; now own their lunchbox!).

The photo above shows both; the one on the left is Jan's and has 4 compartments & a 'spork' eating utensil along with a handy carrying case; the one on the right is 3 compartments with a space-age chopstick carrier outside. Very nice chopsticks with hatching on the tips to make it easier to pick up noodles.

Here are the inner containers, the same general type for both:

The bottom two have insulated lids, which when combined with the insulation in the outer canister, will keep foods hot for long hours. They should stack up inside the container from hottest to coolest: soup on the bottom, rice and veggies and/or meat, salad or fruit, and the all-important DESSERT.
I hope I have not indicated my personal priorities for lunch with this cool and objective listing.

Actually that little soup container is the best thing about Mr. Bento. It does not leak, it holds soup hot, and it holds just enough miso soup to be the perfect lunch accompaniment. You need to clean its gaskets now & then. In addition to the pop-out steam relieving gasket in the center of the lid, there's a ring gasket around the edge.

A chopstick is the perfect instrument for removing the gasket, since you can't cut it as you could if using a knife or fork tine. In the photo just above, my chopstick is pointing at the little notch where you place the chopstick and press gently and pry up to pop out friend gasket.

You can also use that chopstick to press the gasket back in:

Everything gets hand-washed by me even though the containers (not the lids) are dishwasher safe. I don't trust my violent and psychotic dishwasher. Once a week I pop gaskets and let all the components air dry. When spring comes I will place them in a sunny window sill once a week to freshen. (They carry a lot of different foods and spices in a given week.)

Mr. Bento packs a decent amount of food, usually well enough for a morning and afternoon snack plus the centerpiece: your lunch. I love this because I loathe and detest the institutional food of my workplace - it is overpriced and of ghastly quality - and there's nothing else nearby so what I eat in the workday is what I bring. I also love the temperature conservation: hot soup and cool yogurt in the same Mr. Bento, it's delightful.

It is not however very cute. Even my husband is getting interested in adding cuteness to his bento, and wondering whether there's a more cheerful carrying bag, some decals, etc.

We will have to work on the aesthetics of Mr. Bento another time. Spray paint? Glitter glue? Green Bay Packers details? Hello Kitty Brett Favre silhouettes? I see some possibilities.

Here's another photo of the canisters, with my cell phone standing up beside to show scale (they aren't as huge as they look in the top photos):

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oh Boy New Bento Box!!

Cherry blossoms, curved shape, little chopstick holder with more cherry blossoms, I am in love. When I first opened the package I was a little scared because it looked so very small. However it provided a very adequate lunch and made up in cute factor what it lacked in volume.

I had rice with lentils on the bottom, and barbecue tofu, roasted beets, and cherry tomatoes on top - decorated with daikon and carrot flowers.

Last night for the first time I made the lunches before going to bed. It was fun to be in the kitchen late, with the dogs already snoring in the background, cutting out shapes and arranging food in containers. I find that the whole bento concept has changed my attitude toward food, even meals at home. I'm more tuned to the visual, colors, patterns and so forth, and more thoughtful about what to eat. It's good!

Here's Jan's Mr. Bento of today:

Daikon butterflies on baby green salad, bitter melon salad with carrot flowers, lentils and rice with ham skewers, and ginger snap cookies (packaged) with chocolate coins.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Monday!

Something old, something new...Jan's Mr. Bento today was this:

Spicy peanut pasta with snow peas and shrimp; salad of shredded carrot, daikon, ginger and lime with pickled garlic eyeballs and a sweet pepper mouth; two sushi rolls and leftover chicken wings from last night's deli visit; Bahlsen cookies and a Jolly jelly.

My lunch today was just a snack as I did not intend to stay at work past around 2 - i was supposed to have a dressage lesson at 4, but it was too cold (-1 F. at noon) so I cancelled. That left me stranded at work without enough food! However, miraculously I survived. Bosc pear, cranberry aspic, babybel cheese, carrots.

These Bosc pears are delightful: creamy and perfectly ripe. I have to eat about six more immediately unless I figure out some way to keep them from going over to the dark side. That should be my worst problem in life!

Friday, January 23, 2009

End of Week Bentos

My little food cutters arrived and I immediately put them to use on yesterday's bento for Jan: heart-shaped salami on the eggs, and carrot stars. He got; yogurt with blackberries and agave nectar, Want-Want cookie with root-beer barrel candies, spicy peanut whole-wheat noodles with carrot stars, and a hard-boiled egg with salami hearts and a babybel cheese.

My bento for today is:

The largest container is a Bosc pear and a Minneola orange. Smaller container is cranberry aspic with cream cheese and jello jigglers (trying to get rid of these!). And an onigiri with soy sauce bunny.

It's Friday!! I rode two horses last night after 8 p.m.; the arena was all mine and the northern lights were exploding on the horizon. Life is good. Here's to hearts and stars in all our lunches!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wednesday: Overslept

My plans for today's lunch went out the window when I saw how little time I had. This was the result: leftover fried rice from last night, leftover takeout egg foo yung (lower level), with carrots, romaine, and Want-Want cookies on top (OK there's also a JellyJelly and a caramel apple pop; trying to lose weight requires that I cheer myself up with sweets). But also: guava juice!! I love it.

Jan's Mr. Bento was this:

two sushi rolls whose odd shape shows that I made them, with shrimp and ginger and a wasabi filled heart; wrap sandwich of cream cheese and hard salami, salad leftovers, and cookies with a chocolate coin.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Horrifying OctoDog Bento

I am cursed; even a simple octopus hotdog comes out looking like a crime victim; in this case, a poor innocent sea creature who has had its eyes poked out violently and bits of black stuff shoved into the empty sockets. Not far from the truth in my kitchen of emo-food sadism! Avie of AviesBento invented the phrase emo-food and I will be needing it so it seems. I need better knives. But that's probably what all the psychos say.

Today's bento included this victim plus a few other less heart-rending items:

From left to right: sushi rolls, raw carrots, and a tinfoil wasabi boat, Octodog on a green sea of carrot-top aspic, tamagoyaki with green onion and polenta wedges fried in a touch of hot chili oil, and wasabi peas with M&M's and a Jolly-Jolly jelly. This went in Jan's Mr. Bento.

And my lunch was a little simpler but still a bento:

Tamagoyaki, carrots, onigiri lightly fried in sesame oil, grapes, and jello jigglers.

I weighed myself this morning, something I do rarely because it takes so much explaining: how my feet are very heavy and large and probably weigh about 15 pounds each, my bone structure is also huge and heavy, my brain alone is probably 35 pounds at least...but the upshot is I am going to try to lose some weight. I think the bento lunches will help if I keep the vegetables up and the Pockies to a minimum.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Crazy Jelled Edibles

Browsing around other Bento sites, I found French Bento who does beautiful vegan bentos and makes pretty shaped aspics using agar-agar, the vegan's preferred jelling agent which does not use animal products. We spotted an envelope of agar-agar in the oriental grocery yesterday morning so I decided to try it out.

Agar-agar has many health benefits of a vague nature, but it also has the virtue of keeping things jelled at room temperature and even under some heating; nothing melts this stuff once it has grown firm.

In the plate above you see two creations using A-A and one using traditional Jello: the red square is cranberry-orange aspic, a savory to have with a square of cheese or something. The green blocks are carrot-frond aspic to be served over a bed of grated carrots with ginger. The round thing is a Jello jiggler made in a small muffin tin. Jello Jigglers (made with less water than normal Jello) will also hold at room temperature all day. Why I am suddenly fascinated with jelled things I do not know.

We tried out the cranberry aspic with steaks last night and found it to be excellent. In case you are interested here's how to make it -- and you could vary the ingredients a lot, and cut them in cute shapes for your Bento adventures:

Combine in a bowl:

1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained
1 tbsp zest of a satsuma or orange
one small apple, cored & cut in chunks
one peeled satsuma or orange, cut in big chunks
juice of a few key limes or one regular lime
1 1/2 cups of pomegranete juice

Chop in a blender until it is a nice pureed mush. Put in saucepan and mix in 2 tablespoons of agar-agar powder. Heat gradually to a nice bubbly boil and cook & stir for one minute.

Remove from heat, cool slightly, then pour in to greased (Pam spray) pan -- I used a 9 inch square Pyrex one. Once it is cooled and starting to set, refrigerate. Cut as desired when you are ready to pack your Bento!

This is not a sweet aspic but the apple gives it some sweetness. You could certainly add sugar if you wanted it on the sweeter side. I can't wait to make shapes and create frightening EmoFood out of these!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Flubs

This was my first attempt at fancy and the results are quite humbling. What I had pictured: elegant little hot dog fish and a benignly smiling hard boiled egg half decorating wasabi egg salad.

What I got: the miserable survivors of a hot dog massacre -- "Run for your lives!!" -- and an evil or drunken overlord egg also evidently wishing to be elsewhere, perhaps in some banana republic where a maniacal facial expression gains you respect.

Today's Bento features the wasabi egg salad with its emotional storm on top, pita wedges, skewers of cherry tomato, celery, ham, and black olive, and blue raspberry jello with blue M&M's on top. May it taste better than it looks!

I do like the look of these; they made me hungry!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bento for a Frigid Thursday

It's a balmy -20 F. outside as I write this. In a minute I will get dressed in 372 layers of clothing, venture out and attempt to start my car, and mosey off to work. Schools are closed today but my university (Motto: "Hell No We Won't Close!") is open for business as usual.

Jan's Bento has a hot theme to warm him up:

1. Szechuan shrimp stir-fry
2. Polenta wedges fried in hot chili oil
3. Bitter melon salad with lots of fresh ginger
4. Wasabi peas and M&M's

That should put the fire in the belly! He loves hot food so this should be OK.

I'm still seeking the perfect method for transferring soy sauce to the cute containers; it's messy with the syringe, and when I have soy sauce in a coffee cup, I am at high risk of drinking it by accident this early early in the morning. Hazards of bento!!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When Little Bento Schemes Work Out...

...Life is Good!!!

Everyone who loves a bento must have this feeling often: AHA! It fits!!

Today I scored a huge victory. My newly purchased mini-quiche pans make pies that fit in Mr. Bento's containers! Happiness all over.

Here are the pans:

I wasn't sure they'd actually work as they are the exact same diameter as the container, but the spinach quiche I made this morning shrank away just a tetch from the sides as it cooled. There's a limitless horizon of possibilities for these quiche pans. I'm seeing apple crumble, baked squash casseroles, oh just anything...

Today's bento for Jan had;
(1) the victory-quiche, plus:
(2) a Greek salad,
(3) daikon wedges & bitter melon on skewers with shrimp, on a bed of snow peas, drizzled with rice vinegar and with a little soy bottle for cute;
(4) 'Want-Want' rice crackers and a Jolly-Jolly jelly, from our recent grocery trip.

It's a good bento day for me; hope it is for you too!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Baby Bok Choy Takes Over

This beautiful baby bok choy, scored Saturday morning at the local Oriental Grocery, had been on my mind and this morning it took over today's Mr. Bento. I should have included something to show scale but the stem ends are less than one inch across and it is so tender and sweet!

I stir-fried just the bok choy very briefly in a little sesame oil with a drop of hot pepper oil, then topped it with leftover teriyaki chicken. The other parts of Jan's lunch today are a salad I made from julienned giant daikon and carrot with fresh cilantro and lime juice, and pumpkin soup.

We have two different Mr. Bentos; one came with only Japanese writing on the package and has 3 inner containers (and a slick chopstick carrier on the outside); the other was clearly designed for an international market and has 4 containers and a 'spork' in a loop inside. They're about the same outer dimensions so the 4-container Bento's containers are smaller. Today I gave Jan the 3-one so that the bok choy and chicken would have enough space. It's nice to have choice.

Today is the last day of my technology boot camp so as of tomorrow I will be Bentoing instead of eating sad taco salads with mystery meat the consistency and ?flavor of dog food. Alas for my university food service; formerly barely OK, now a disaster due to budget cuts and creeping junk-food-itis.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mr. Bento Monday MashUp

Today's Mr. Bento (again just one, for Jan, since I am still stuck in my technology workshop which provides sad little lunches for all the inmates I mean participants)is a bit of a mashup.

It included an omelet with bacon, toasted blueberry bagel with foil-wrapped cream cheese, a lovely satsuma with a lime wedge to squeeze over, and sushi rice rolls with shrimp, ginger ribbon, soy bottle, and slices of bitter melon.

Bitter melon is new to me; we visited our 'oriental grocery' on Saturday and as soon as the proprietor learned that Jan is diabetic, she insisted that we learn about bitter melon. She prepared some for us, she showed us her lunch salad which included it, she gave us two for free, and she even wrote down a recipe for a nice bitter melon salad to try at home. She was so kind and lovely and generous to us -- it was like an angelic visitation.

In case you are not yet jiggy with bitter melon, here's what they look like: space alien cucumbers.

Inside is a spongy center with large black seeds - very pretty to look at.

The spongy part and all seeds are scraped out, then you cut small cross sections and do whatever you like but no cooking! That destroys the benefits. I included some raw pieces with Jan's sushi rolls and hope they aren't too intense all alone. We made a salad Saturday night according to the grocer's recipe and it was dynamite.

Good start to the week of Bento adventure!

Friday, January 9, 2009

TGIF All-Japanese Bento

Last night I went to bed with no ideas about today's Mr. Bento; I'm not sure why. And I overslept this morning, which left very little time to prepare anything. In a mad rush I grabbed things out of the pantry and fridge, and this was the result: cold sesame udon with cucumber chunks on top, garlic shrimp with red pepper, miso soup with snow pea and mushroom, ginger cookies and a truffle (OK the dessert was not so Japanese).

The seal of approval was definitely given to the shrimp and the udon. I was glad to have found a cold sesame noodle recipe that I like; there seem to be many ways of making this sauce and nothing so far has matched that one transcendent cold-sesame experience I had in Sausalito way back when...

How many times do we go in search of that Holy Grail, the 'best ever' dish we had once upon a time? And sometimes the atmosphere or the occasion was such a big part of it - so the dish itself is forever a fugitive or a ghost, slipping away even as we reach to recreate it. Sausalito makes everything taste better! Especially if you have just come from hiking in the redwoods. And on that particular afternoon, the sun was slanting over the beach making everyone golden. But those noodles now, they really were divine...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mr. Bento's International Incident

Today's Mr. Bento lunch was international to an almost alarming degree. Last night I made sushi rice rolls with sesame seeds on top, using a gizmo that crushes rice into roll shapes. Nifty! Much better than wearing sticky rice mittens the way I did last time. So this was the Japan element, along with Mr. Bento himself of course.

To that I added some shrimp and a tiny bottle of soy sauce with a bunny shaped head from "Mama's Assist".

I can tell you that Mama needs assist in getting soy sauce into that little bottle opening; a teensy funnel was provided but I recommend you have a full cup of coffee and put on your glasses before trying this at home.

Also in today's lunch: Minnesota-baked pita quarters with Egyptian hummus inside, a Greek salad, and an orange from Mexico. How many continents are represented in this photo?! What a world we live in. In the olden days you'd have to have been a Roman Caesar to eat such a world-cafe of ingredients, as in "thrushes' tongues from Persia and honey from Africa" etc. Now it is all at our fingertips.

My husband eats lunch with a somewhat rowdy crowd of co-workers, who are a bit fascinated with his Bento lunches now. Today one of them said, "What did you do last night??" I think it was the sushi rolls.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The best Mr. Bento so far!

This one was a big hit, partially because it included shrimp but also (surprising me) the yogurt got high marks.

Jan's Mr. Bento du jour included: Szechuan shrimp stir-fry, cabbage slaw with a cherry tomato smile that made it all the way to lunch without being disarranged!, miso mushroom soup, and plain yogurt topped with blackberries and drizzled with agave nectar. The cherry tomato smile was supposed to be cheerful but somehow it reminds me of an axe murderer...

For anyone watching carbs: agave nectar is as sweet as honey but has about 1/5th the carbs of a comparable amount. It costs more but I don't use much of it so it's a good investment. I get it at my local co-op natural foods store. And it pours freely, unlike honey which can be messy and slow and can get the honey jar stuck on your head.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jan's Tuesday Mr. Bento

I am only making one Mr. Bento lunch per day this week because I am in a workshop which is providing lunch for us -- terrible ghastly food from the university food service, but we are required to eat together and I can't bring myself to open up Mr. Bento in front of everyone eating sad cardboardy pizza and damp chicken wrap sandwiches...

Anyway here is Jan's Tuesday Mr. Bento:

He got: spaghetti pie in a bed of shredded Savoy cabbage, green beans from last night's dinner, grapefruit slices, and ginger cookies with chocolate covered cherries. He said he wasn't able to finish the grapefruit because it would have been too many carbs for him, but he did not say the cookies went uneaten for that reason!

I figured out how to remove the gasket from the soup container of Mr. Bento for cleaning; a chopstick pops it out nicely and also pushes it back into its groove.
I'll include a photo of this fascinating operation in tomorrow's blog.

Meanwhile here's a winter sky photo of the church across the street, a pretty building with an obnoxious mechanical chime that plays such things as an off-key version of 'Kumbaya' loudly at noon and 6 p.m. every blessed day:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jan's Monday Bento

I packed: wasabi meatloaf with tsukemono of lemon celery on the side, braised brussels sprouts in orange and ginger sauce, and black cherry jello with ginger cookies.

People either love or hate brussels sprouts it seems....these I had fun with because I wanted to fight the cabbagey scent with the orange and ginger. I seared them in a tiny bit of oil, then squeezed the juice of one fresh orange over them and let them simmer on until almost tender:

I had used one of my favorite tools to get a tablespoon of orange zest; this 'zester' I bought at one of those Pampered Chef parties where you basically have to buy something and this was about the cheapest thing, sigh. But it really works well:

The zest and the ginger went in for about 5 minutes of simmering and that's all.
I got the recipe for the lemon-celery tsukemono (fresh veggie pickles) from this lovely little book:

It seems these 'pickles' are really lightly flavored, slightly preserved fresh veggies which add a savory touch to Japanese lunchboxes. Most of the recipes here are super fast and easy. I plan to use these cute little sticks for my pickles of the future:

I have to admit I am having a blast with this whole Bento concept!! Now I am off to look at everyone else's Bento sites for more ideas. Here's to your good health and beautiful lunches!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Preparing for the Bento Week Ahead

Jan bought me this lovely spicewood cutting board and pink-handled knife in honor of our commitment to Mr. Bento lunches in 2009. The cutting board is almost too pretty to use and so far, I have not been able to bring myself to cut anything on it.

This morning I rose up outlandishly early as usual and rather than immediately go out to shovel snow (we got a foot of it last night), I started preparations for the lunches of the week.

First was jello in tiny portions; I bought these little containers at a dollar store last year and they are handy for fitting into Mr. Bento:

Then I found a nice recipe for lowfat ginger cookies on the internet; it uses molasses and applesauce instead of oil or butter.

I highly recommend this recipe, especially for anyone baking with little helpers. It makes a very tasty cookie with a slight crunch on the outside and a gum-drop texture inside. It is very easy, and there are no dangerous steps like melting.

So you see I have the dessert taken care of for the week, and need only the actual lunch! This is pretty much the way I think -- what's for dessert?? The caboose drives the train. My diabetic husband also does like a sweet taste, so the little portions of jello are great for him - and one cookie will do fine.