Bento Week! The Weekly Plan: Dec 7 – 13

The important thing this week is that there’s any sort of plan at all.  We have friends in town early in the week, events Tuesday and Wednesday, and then I work again on the weekend evenings.  On the plus side, I am off on Wednesday and we have Thursday night at home together.  We made a conscious decision to make this a very low-cooking week-only Thursday night involves any cooking of scale.  I also knew we needed more lunch options, since we wouldn’t be

Building off of my new lunch parameters (no soft food, no heating), I headed to Pinterest for some inspiration.  The most appealing no-heat lunch?  Bento box!

I found my way to the magical land of justbento.com.  Clear, just whimsical enough, and incredibly informative, Makiko’s site is a living text book of bento.  I can’t possible explain any of her methods better than she can, so I’ll link over where appropriate!

SUNDAY: Prep Day

I realize it’s important to note all the things we do in advance, especially for a week that’s mostly putting things together.  On Sunday evening, I spent a little less than three hours cooking and made:

  • 2 grilled chicken breasts – for slicing in bento lunches or eating in a wrap (well, technically Dave made these)
  • Tofu, mushroom, and spinach ramen.  Homemade ramen!  You use the noodles from the packets and build your own sauce around them. Pretty rad.  Our recipe came from the New Best Recipe Skillet book, but surely there are many out there. We ate two portions for dinner and had two leftover for lunches.
  • Beef soboro.  The link provides the best explanation, but soboro is basically a flavored meat or fish crumble that you can use on top of dishes as a flavoring.  It’s definitely of the “meat on the side” ethos.
  • Onigiri AKA rice balls!  Sweet jesus, they’re so good.  I put a little bit of the beef soboro in the middle and wrapped them in nori.  They weren’t hard to make at all, they just involved a fair amount of time start to finish, but most of that was not active time.  I first encountered onigiri under the name “musubi,” specifically, ahem, spam musubi, which are overwhelmingly delicious and widely available at Hawaiian restaurants.  Of course, musubi are the result of Japanese migration to Hawaii, so they’re all part and parcel of the same idea!  You don’t have to fill them, but you can, and with pretty much anything.  Dave has requested we make these every week.
  • Soup eggs: hard-boiled eggs that are finished, shells off, in the soup made from ramen packets.  I thought this was a great one-two punch so that we didn’t waste the dried soup packets from the packs of ramen.  Something went awry with the cooking time…I ended up with half-cooked eggs with sticky shells that pulled away huge chunks of egg.  I am going to try to eat the scraggly core that I was able to pull out and boiled in the soup, but  adjustments will be made next time.

The Bento Boxes

So with our cooking on Sunday and a trip to the grocery store, here are all the things that can be combined into bento boxes:

  • Grilled chicken
    • In a tortilla
    • On its own
  • Onigiri
  • Soup eggs
  • Carrots
  • A red pepper
  • Tangerines
  • Apples
  • Chili-garlic sauteed kale (leftover from Sunday lunch)
  • Pretzels
  • Block of colby jack cheese
  • Fresh rice (I count this as pre-made, since it requires 2 minutes of prep and could be made morning-of)
  • Beef soboro

This first attempt at a bento lunch week is feeling a little more snack plate than composed lunch, but that’s quite the antidote to my problems from last week, so I say who cares.  I’m snackin’!

MONDAY: Dinner with friends.  Ethiopian!

TUESDAY: Dave makes his own dinner.  

WEDNESDAY: Mexican Night – Quesadillas

THURSDAY: Asian Night (switcheroo) – Tuna Skewers with Mochi Cakes and Carrot and Yuzu Salad

The big cooking night!  This is a wild recipe.  Mochi, at least the mochi that makes it to the U.S., tends to be sweet, so this savory application where the mochi cake is the starch on an otherwise traditional protein-starch-veg plate is  very intriguing.

 

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Weekly Plan & (Some) Recap: Nov 30 – Dec 6

What I’m quickly realizing with my new job is that the “crazy week” scenario from before our week-long Thanksgiving vacation is pretty much the every week scenario.  Given how the first two full weeks have gone, I’m going to be making some adjustments to how I plan.

Specifically:

  • I’m slow cookered out.  I’m struggling to find recipes that don’t result in the same soft, slightly wet texture.  Does that just come with the territory?  I suppose the other big use of the slow cooker is breaking down tough cuts of beef and pork, but that’s moving in the opposite direction of what we’re trying to do.
  • I don’t like having to heat my lunch up every day.  Part of that is stemming from wanting to eat things with a variety textures and part of it is that the best place to eat at work is outside, a short walk from the office, and it’s kind of a hassle to carry a hot, open bowl (of mush) with you.
  • We need more partially-ready components to throw together later in the week.  Wednesdays are hard.

MONDAY – Asian Night: Thai Green Curry & Eggplant

Green Thai curry is a snap to make.  You warm up some pre-made curry paste with maybe some fresh ginger and garlic,  dump in a can of coconut milk, and then gently simmer vegetables, meat or shrimp, or tofu just until they’re cooked through.  That’s it.

A fellow shopper at our local Asian grocery store saw Dave and I buying ingredients for curry and, citing her experience as an actual Thai chef, recommended coconut milk and Maesri curry paste.  We took the advice, of course, and while the coconut milk seemed to work well enough, the Maesri green curry paste was overwhelmingly spicy for me.  I’m fairly sensitive to heat, but can take some; I can handle a whole lot of sriracha and usually tap out just on the spicy side of jalapenos.  I was very disappointed that I couldn’t even finish the first bowl of my beautiful curry with tofu and enoki mushrooms!  Luckily, Dave has a higher heat tolerance and had no problem with it.  Oddly enough, I loved the Thai eggplants (slice them about 1 cm wide) I cooked off in a skillet with some chili garlic paste and basil when they were just-cooked, but Dave found them slimy after less than 24 hours in the fridge.

TUESDAY  – Mediterranean Night: Red Lentil Stew

We made this on Sunday to keep through the week, pulled from Best Slow Cooker Recipes.  Flavor was good, but texture was odd, very grainy, like the lentils had broken down only part of the way.  Mixing it with rice helped, but I definitely reached an “Ugh, mush again…” moment at work.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night: Bowls

We planned to do some simple bowls, ended up with black bean and cheese burritos that I sliced my thumb in the process of making.  Can lids are not to be trifled with!  I was trying to get to an aerial class across town that I ended up having to cancel because, well, bleeding onto a trapeze bar is discouraged.

THURSDAY – American Classics: Sicilian Chickpea & Escarole Soup

Sounds great, right?  Operative word, sounds.  We needed one ingredient to be picked up on Wednesday night so this could go in the slow cooker on Thursday morning and that just didn’t happen (See thumb slicing, above).  A good lesson in the need to be more realistic about time management once the week gets started.

Weekly Plan & Recap: Nov 16 – 22

This was it. The kind of week the Plan was made for. Dave had events. I started a new job and produced two events in the evenings. We knew it was going to be trying.

Last Sunday, we kicked into high gear. We took a look at the number of meals we needed–18 lunches and dinners from Sunday night to Thursday night–and the number of nights we had time to cook–just one, Sunday. We weren’t just advance planning this week, we were advance cooking, and then portioning out the dishes into the 18 individual meals we’ll need. We didn’t expect to eat according to the plan, that is, only eating the Asian dish on Monday, Mexican on Wednesday, and so on, but we did look to our themes to choose the four dishes that we’ll rotate through for the week.

The cooking turned out to be pretty painless; the eating however, was a doozy. Since I’m writing this one with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll review the recipes within the plan.

MONDAY – Asian Night: Pineapple Curry Fried Rice

This is a great dish, adapted from The New Best Recipe‘s fried rice by adding a tablespoon of curry powder. Fried rice is also generally pretty easy to make, so long as you start with cold rice. We try to make the rice the day before, but the morning of works fine, too.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite meals. The distinct, warm flavor of the curried rice is punctuated by the bright pineapple, and the blend of textures is just right. Fried rice is a great “eat for a week” dish, too, as it holds its flavor well and reheats easily.

TUESDAY – Mediterranean Night: Chicken with Couscous, Chickpeas, and Apricots

A Best Skillet Recipes dish consisting of lightly breaded and sauteed chicken cutlets over a bed of seasoned couscous with chickpeas and dried apricots. Verdict: Good, though not excellent. Couscous cooks so quickly that it’s hard to imbue it with much more than its natural flavor, which is why I typically like it as a side dish for heavily seasoned or rich proteins and vegetables, when the blandness can be a relief. This recipe though just lacked oomph and seemed sort of unbalanced – the apricots had great texture, but contributed to an overall sweetness that cried out for a heat that was nowhere to be found. The dish desperately needed harissa or warming spices. Frying the chickpeas in toasted spices or adding spice to the chicken breading could have added the missing element.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night: Slow Cooker Mexican Quinoa

Yikes. Not. A. Keeper. I hate to malign the original recipe too much since I did make some changes, but this is not a recipe I’ll be trying again. The basic idea is to combine quinoa, broth, beans, and vegetables in the slow cooker with the goal of a dense, casserole-consistency dish. My grave error was adding to the mix some tomatoes that were about to turn; the additional liquid completely threw off the proportions. Instead of a casserole, we ended up with slop: squishy, wet, overcooked quinoa porridge. The seasoning was good, but honestly, it was hard to choke this down for two lunches this week. Blech. Thinking about it now, I just can’t imagine how cooking quinoa for two-and-half-hours with any degree of liquid is going to turn out well, though I could imagine the concept working if you tried it in the oven, arroz con pollo style, or on the stove top using a paellera.

THURSDAY – American Classics Night: Lasagna

Freezer lasagna that is.  Sweet Jesus, this was hard to get through. As Dave put it, lasagna is something you want to eat like once every six months, not four times in a week so that you can get finish off the pan. This was a vegetarian lasagna with eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, a style I like well enough, but don’t rave about even when it’s fresh. I tried to make it more palatable by putting fresh arugula on top of each serving, and that did help, but it wasn’t enough to keep this from feeling like a slog.

FRIDAY – Wild Card

Shrimp burger at the Holloway, where have you been all my life??

SATURDAY – Friend/Family Night

Celebrating my new job with the fam!

SUNDAY – Elaborate

Momma’s gonna get her cooking on.

THE RECAP:

To do a quick goals check-in, I’ll say that we did nail our budget this week and admittedly, I didn’t have much anxiety about deciding what to eat (just about eating it!). On the other hand, as if my distress weren’t totally apparent from the descriptions of Wednesday and Thursday, this was a less than satisfying week from an enjoyment perspective. Cycling through the M – Th foods for ten meals (Sunday dinner through Friday lunch) was too much, especially when two of the meals were just not very good. That’s the dark side of pre-planning and cooking: when a dish goes awry, you’re stuck with it, and a LOT of it, too.

We did have a pretty major deviation from the plan in that we broke down and ordered a pizza on Wednesday night – we were just exhausted, the couscous was finished, and we knew if we ate fried rice we’d have nothing but quinoa gunk and lasagna for the rest of the week. The next time we have a week this intense, I’m going to build a night of takeout or a couple lunches out into the plan. The sanity is worth the money.

Another thing this week illustrated is that a crazy week is not the time to try to hero up and clean out the freezer (the lasagna) or try a very new dish from an untested source (the quinoa). When there’s such little room for error, it’s better to rely on tried-and-true recipes.  Finally, I was reminded that when I’m really pushing myself, I shouldn’t jettison the goals of being healthy and frugal, but I should think about pushing enjoyment higher on the priority list. I find it far easier to stay focused during a busy time when food feels like a source of joy, not more work to get through.

The Best Laid Plans

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, 
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

-Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

I’m a perfectionist, a trait that bends toward professional success but personal angst. When making plans that involve others, I’ve found a path toward equanimity and realism. I can adjust course when things go awry and don’t get too bent out of shape when I need to shift my expectations. But in my personal life, planning can quickly become a source of stress. If I don’t live up to the expectations of a budget or a plan I laid out for myself, my instinct is to dwell on everything that went wrong and how I let myself down. I lose sight of everything that went right, even when the win column far outnumbers the loss.

For a long time, I tried to break this cycle by over-correcting; I barely planned anything in my own life beyond just day-to-day maintenance of my calendar. Avoiding the problem delivered moderate success, I reduced my stress and experienced no major consequences, well, save for the obvious consequence that food decisions could still trigger a flash flood of stress. With this new effort, I’m striving for a more balanced approach.

Case in point, this week my Tuesday plan went pretty far afield. Dave and I spent his morning off just hanging out instead of cooking or going to the store, and then on my way home from working out that night, I was exhausted. Quite seriously–I was having a little trouble walking because my legs were so tired. I knew as I drove home that going to the store was a bridge too far. I started reformulating my plan. We had a leftover chicken breast from our (awesome) chicken salads on Monday night, we had kale, we had a lemon. I got home and found half a box of pasta. Done.

One of the big lessons reinforced by my midstream correction was that a well-stocked pantry can make your life a lot easier, particularly when it’s filled with things that cook very quickly, and that cooking enough for leftovers increases your flexibility. The other takeaway (and now I’m talking right to myself), is that when planning, it’s important to keep the goals in mind. My greatest goal in undertaking a meal plan is to reduce my anxiety about food, and thus my overall stress level. My goal is NOT to prove that I can stick to the letter of what I wrote in my notebook on Sunday. Seeing that written out, my internal reaction is, “Um, duh…” but it’s remarkable how the patterns in our brains can conspire against us. The perfectionist voice inside tells me that if you’re not going to be dead letter perfect at something, you probably should give up. It’s why my efforts at planning for my personal life have been stymied for so long. Luckily, I continue to assemble an arsenal of tools to tell that voice to cool it, and just let me enjoy my dinner.

Weekly Plan: Nov 9 – 15

This week’s Night of the Week Plan highlights its essential loose-tight, go with the flow nature. We have packed evenings this week – Monday is the only night we’re both home all evening, and Dave even has a meeting over Skype before dinner! We’re relying heavily on non-recipes this week and drawing on the pantry to make simple meals.

MONDAY – Asian Night: Grilled Chicken Salad

A no-recipe night. I marinated two chicken breasts that had been in the freezer with a combo of soy sauce, olive oil, a little rice wine vinegar, chili-garlic paste (yes, you need some), and dijon mustard, and then Dave grilled them on our Smokey Joe tiny barbecue grill.

While the chicken cooked, I made a quick dressing, tore up some kale and mixed greens, and fried very thin strips of onions. I topped the salads with sliced chicken, fried onions, soy nuts, and green onion. All in all, our active prep time was about 20 minutes.

A word on salad dressings: you can of course follow a recipe (this was my starting point tonight), but a simple vinaigrette just involves oil, acid, something sweet, like honey, and salt and pepper.

TUESDAY – Mediterranean Night: Lemony Kale + Spicy Chickpeas 

I’m on my own while Dave has an evening event, so I’m going very simple and exactly to my taste. After I get home from working out, I’ll do a quick, 10 minute or less saute of kale with lemon juice and olive oil. In a separate pan, I’ll toast some dry harissa seasoning, add oil, and then warm chickpeas, finally serving both over a bed of couscous.

My starting point when I want a very simple meal is to cook a vegetable, protein, and a starch. Having only two of the three feels less complete, and somewhat unsatisfying, so I often rely on quick-cooking starch options like couscous (5 minutes start to finish) or Asian noodles like soba or udon.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night: Tortilla Bake

On Tuesday morning, Dave’s going to make some sort of tortilla-lasagna. We’ll look up a starting point recipe in the morning, but we have many of the ingredients for this kind of a dish on hand and can get the others at the small market around the corner, so we can leave the details to the day-of. The plan is to bake it off Tuesday morning and reheat individually Wednesday night, when I have some theatre commitments.

THURSDAY – American Classics Night: Turkey Meatloaf and Wild Rice

We’ll luckily be together on Thursday night, but we have an evening engagement. So we need something we both like, but that is fast to pull together after work. My tiny turkey meatloafs from last week will come out of the freezer in the morning, and we’ll pop some wild rice into the rice cooker as soon as Dave gets home.

Rice cookers are a gift from the universe. I think mine cost $20 at Target some six years ago, an investment that I’m sure has worked out to pennies per use. We use ours to make rice, lentils, quinoa, and barley, and while maybe that’s not the “correct” way to do it, I don’t care and no one can stop me because I love my rice cooker and it’s amazing.

FRIDAY – Wild Card: Leftovers

I’m pretty sure we’ll have some leftovers by Friday, which makes for such a nice, low-key way to ease into the weekend. I notice in theatre it’s often tougher to sell a Friday night show than a Saturday night, likely because people are so zonked from their work week.

SATURDAY/SUNDAY – Elaborate/Friend Nights

These are TBD right now, which feels right because we have so few commitments this weekend (huzzah!). We’ve definitely got our eyes on the NOPI cookbook…

The Week in Review

At the end of the week, it’s fitting to take stock (food pun) of how the Plan went in the days previous. Teriyaki bowls were conceptually a winner, though I would choose a different teriyaki recipe next time. The recipe I tried this week (link in previous post), produced a sauce far too thick and somewhat cloying, though it delivered satisfying chicken. My stir fry accompaniment, picture below, was excellent. The key is to be unafraid to cook the vegetables for different amounts of time. Bok choy stems go first, then broccoli and carrots, and, finally, bok choy leaves. Staggering the veg takes no extra time whatsoever, but it’s a step I neglected for far too long.

Teriyaki Bowl Vegetables
Teriyaki Bowl Vegetables

We subbed some pre-made chipotle-flavored vegetarian crumbles for the tempeh on Mexican night. In theory, I like this move; I’m not above using a pre-made ingredient to speed things along. However I found the crumbles disgusting from a textural perspective: soft, spongy, wet. We’re trying to eat less meat, for both health and sustainability reasons, and this product was not a good ambassador of the meat-lite lifestyle. When done right, an omnivore eating vegetarian or vegan cuisine shouldn’t even notice that a meal lacks meat. Sadly, with the crummy crumbles, I was wishing I had a mouth full of ground beef with every bite. Next time, I’m going all black beans if I want a taco salad to be meatless. Black beans are the BEST. If I figure out the brand of the meat substitute, I will update it here.

Our Lentils and Chard with Salmon from The Best Skillet Recipes was a huge hit, as per usual. It also uses the technique of separating and pre-cooking the stems from a leafy green! This may be where we picked that up…Anyway, this cookbook seems like an underused resource in our house. We’re going to delve deeper in the coming weeks.

For the uninitiated, “The Best…” books are from America’s Test Kitchen, who are also the minds behind Cooks Illustrated magazine. They do extensive recipe testing and focus on explaining why a recipe works and why they chose specific ingredients and methods. In my mind this approach seems geared toward the more advanced home cook, who could then make educated guesses with recipe modifications or apply techniques to other dishes. At the same time, I imagine that having detailed justification could also help inspire confidence in a new cook (or the skeptic!).

Weekly Plan: Nov 2 – 8

Let’s get things started! I’ll start simple. This is our actual plan for the week in my wonderful Muji weekly planner…You can see how we used our themes to build a plan down the left hand side of the page, and our ingredients are listed on the right hand side. Yeah, it’s not exactly cute, but it gets the job done.

20151102_164754

I thought for a moment this wasn’t a good week to start with because we have my mom’s birthday dinner tomorrow and so aren’t doing Mediterranean Night, but it’s actually a great illustration of a point. Tools are only meant to be useful, not to shame you into using them a certain way. I mean, you wouldn’t let a hammer make you feel less-than.

Here are the details on how we used the NWP this week:

MONDAY – Asian Night: Teriyaki Chicken Bowls

Yesterday I decided I really wanted an almost fast-food style teriyaki bowl so I scouted a slow cooker teriyaki recipe through Pinterest on a blog called Gimme Some Oven. I had to go to the store this morning to pick up a few little ingredients and the vegetables for the bowl. More on our bowl strategy soon – it’s a game changer. So this night includes:

  • Chicken & sauce from recipe
  • Bok choy, broccoli, carrots
  • White rice (sooo luxurious)

I started the slow cooker in the AM before I went out to do a site visit. Tonight, the veg prep + cook and rice should took about 20-30 minutes. Dave did dishes as I cooked, which was a really nice encouragement!

TUESDAY – Mom’s birthday

Normally this would be Mediterranean Night, but we’re skipping it for some birthday fun times. Woot!

WEDNESDAY – Mexican: Tempeh Taco Salad

Dave is up to bat for this one. We’re looking at a chopped salad with taco seasoning tempeh. I have no idea how to cook this or truly what it is, but I do know it is a vegetarian protein option and I am game to try it if he’ll cook it. He has to stay late at work for a load-in, but luckily that means he’ll go in late, too, so he’ll go to the store on Wednesday for the fresh elements. You can see the list on the photo above. He’ll do all the chopping and cook the tempeh in the AM, then when both of us get home from stuff late we’ll just throw it together in a bowl. Before Wednesday, I’m going to fill in the Th/F ingredient lists and see if he’ll get those, too.

THURSDAY – American Classics: Turkey Meatloaf

Dave’ll be at an event, so I’m flying solo. The plus side of that is that if I make a full batch of something, I can freeze everything I don’t eat. I’m going to make muffin-tin turkey meatloafs. Haven’t found a recipe yet, but I’ll do that before Wednesday so Dave can get the ingredients.

FRIDAY – Friend Night: Salmon and Lentils, then a night out

And by that I mean we’re seeing some friends, but we’re also going to make a salmon-lentils-chard dish from the Cooks Illustrated New Best Recipe cookbook before we go out. I will grab those ingredients Friday during the day.

SATURDAY – Wild Card

I have a gig, so we’re planning ahead that I’ll grab something between rehearsal in the afternoon and the performance in the evening. Dave is on his own!

SUNDAY – Elaborate

We just got our hands on NOPI: The Cookbook, the latest from London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. This guy is out of control. His cookbooks are gorgeous and filled with unbelievable, modern recipes drawing on the many culinary traditions that meet in Israel, where he’s originally from. This book is co-written with Ramael Scully, the head chef at NOPI, who comes from Malaysia by way of Australian fine dining, so there’s a strong South Asian influence. We’ve yet to pick a recipe (will update later in the week), but it will definitely involve the better part of the late afternoon and evening to prep. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is certainly going to be epic.