When I was growing up on the Canadian prairies, all the children in our neighborhood walked home from school for lunch every day. And no, it wasn’t twenty miles each way uphill, but it was cold in the winter. We were more than adequately bundled; our silhouettes resembling a troop of mini-Michelin men as we trudged to and fro. The fare was simple: sandwiches that Mom had made, and soup, courtesy of a company named “Campbell”. Sometimes there was spaghetti from Chef Boyardee or Kraft macaroni and cheese. Dessert was fresh fruit and, very occasionally, a sweet treat like a cookie. My husband’s experience was similar, except his sisters prepared the lunches. To this day he cannot abide Lipton’s chicken noodle soup.
Over the years Andy and I have eaten our share of workplace cafeteria meals, mostly in hospitals. I appreciate the effort that goes into running an institutional eatery. It is no easy task to feed hundreds, if not thousands of people everyday, all the while adhering to nutritional and safety standards and tight operating budgets. But I wasn’t surprised when Andy came home one evening grousing about the price and quality of the lunch offerings in the cafeteria. “I ordered a gyro and a drink and it was $7.95 and it wasn’t even good,” he explained rather ruefully. So I suggested a solution to the problem: pack a lunch.
I think one of most important factors in creating good, portable lunches is organization. Just a little time spent in the evening can reward you with a healthy and delicious midday meal. Sandwiches are good; try to vary your choices with different breads and creative fillings. Last evening I made two sandwiches for Andy: roast turkey on multigrain bread with lettuce, smoked cheddar, and spicy tomato chutney, and Italian coldcuts on ciabatta with olive salad. Pita can be a good vehicle for salads and wetter ingredients. Pack salads with the dressing in a separate container to prevent sogginess. Revisit the “chef” salad by adding diced cooked meat, hard-cooked eggs, cheese and beans. Use dinner leftovers when you can; if you have access to a microwave, heating up a meal from home is quick and easy. And on those days when you are really in a pinch, I think that little company called “Campbell” is still in business. They have made all of their inventory available in microwave safe containers (and with improved nutritional profiles). Recently, I found inspiration for creative lunch-making in Volume 111 of Fine Cooking Magazine. The name of the article is ” Lunch @ Your Desk.” Here are two of their strategies for new and delicious packed lunches.
Herb-Marinated Goat Cheese with Fruit and Nuts (adapted from Fine Cooking #111)
1 4-oz. log plain goat cheese
2 sprigs fresh rosemary or marjoram
1 small garlic clove’ peeled and halved
1 to 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon toasted fennel or coriander seeds
Wet a chef’s knife with warm water and cut the cheese into 1/2 inch rounds. If the rounds fall apart, reshape them with your hands. Put the herb sprigs and garlic in a 1 pint glass jar. Pour a little of the olive oil in a small bowl, and dip each cheese round in the oil to coat it completely-this will keep them from sticking together in the jar. Add the rounds to the jar, alternating the cheese with the fennel or coriander seeds. Cover with oil and refrigerate for a few days before eating.
* I used less oil and turned the jar on its side to immerse the little cheese rounds. It worked fine.
To compose this lunch, pack your choice of bread (preferably something rustic and chewy to support the cheese when it’s spread), a piece of fresh fruit, a handful of nuts and/or dried fruit and half the marinated cheese. Let the cheese warm at room temperature for about an hour before lunch. Slice your bread and fresh fruit. Arrange the fruit, cheese and nuts on a plate and drizzle with the oil, enjoy with the bread.
Lentil, Tuna, and Roasted Pepper Salad (adapted from Fine Cooking #111)
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
For the Salad
1/4 cup brown or French green lentils
1/2 dried bay leaf
1 small clove garlic
1 small carrot, peeled and halved
1 small yellow onion, unpeeled and halved
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallion (white parts only)
1/2 cup homemade or jarred roasted or grilled red peppers,
peeled and cut into thick slices
2 to 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 5-oz. cans tuna (preferably line-caught and packed in olive oil)
2 medium ripe tomatoes
extra-virgin olive oil
Make the vinaigrette
Mix the shallot, vinegar, mustard, garlic, and a scant 1/4 tsp. salt in a small bowl. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes to soften the shallot and garlic. Whisk in the olive oil and stir in the parsley.
Make the Salad
In a 1 quart pan of well-salted water, bring the lentils, bay leaf, garlic, carrot, and onion to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. let the lentils cool completely in their liquid. Drain, discard the onion, carrot, bay leaf and garlic, and transfer to a medium bowl. Stir the scallions into the lentils and toss with 2 to 3 teaspoons of the vinaigrette. In a small bow, mix the roasted peppers with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette; add salt and lemon juice to taste. In another small bowl, toss the tuna gently with the remaining vinaigrette.
Pack half of each of the salad’s components in separate containers. Keep refrigerated until lunchtime.
To compose the salad, slice the tomato into thick wedges and arrange on your plate with the lentils, peppers, and tuna. Season as desired with salt and olive oil.