Happy Earth Day!

and it is, too :) It’s a beautiful sunny spring day outside, that’s pretty much perfect where I live. The trees are that light green budded out color, and some – the apples and cherries and dogwoods are flowering. Our native dogwood is one of my favorites. Most people don’t know that we have a beautiful native cherry as well, that is much taller (more like a forest tree) than the ornamental garden variety. Baby blue eyes, Lily of the Valley, Solomon’s Seal, azaleas and camellias, and (almost) lilacs are blooming. The fluffy white clouds and patches of blue sky make a pretty backdrop to the not-quite-leafed out trees.

The day started off not so auspiciously with a dentist’s appointment, but even though he had a cavity to fill, it went quickly, without any pain and suffering. At home, I made my lunch bento, made up a big batch of cole slaw, and made plans for Asian Cornish game hen to marinade overnight. Then, I glance out at my raised beds, which have been busily sprouting weeds, including the ubiquitous and hard-to-remove geranium that grows wild here. Time to really do my Earth Day chores!

So, out I went into the lovely afternoon to rid my beds of weeds and prepare them for planting, noting the green onions, rosemary, and sage that had prolifically survived the winter. Once the beds were prepared, I added the chives, chard, tarragon, and cilantro starts I picked up at the farmer’s market. In a couple of weeks there should be more of the summer herbs and veggies available, like peppers and basil. I’m not sure what else I’ll experiment with this year – maybe plant some garlic and shallots and summer squash. Last year the eggplant didn’t do anything, but neither did anyone else’s (due to the weather), sooo … maybe I’ll try it again. I do like eggplant.

They don’t look like much right now, I know. But they will!!

More bento pics, for those who aren’t bored of them:
Bento #1 – Yogurt and fresh fruit in the small section, rice with smoked salmon and green onions in the larger section
Bento #2 – Tomato, goat cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette in the small section; rice, sushi soy sauce, and nori furikake (seaweed, sesame seeds, garlic, and sea salt) in the larger section

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Weekend bento prep

I’m finally back from a bunch of traveling and settling down to a more “normal” lifestyle. The bento lunches worked really well at my conference, especially since the little cafe at the conference venue was closed unexpectedly and there was nowhere to get anything to eat. Thus encouraged, I decided to put together some bento ingredients today (which somehow seems easier than cooking entire meals, since you don’t have to figure out in advance how they will all go together).

This morning I hard-boiled a couple of eggs for lunches, which can be combined with various things or made into egg salad. I then tried making a traditional Japanese one-egg omelet, called tamagoyaki. These are the rectangular, many-layered eggs used in sushi and bento, that are typically firm and slightly sweet. Mine came out close, at least for a home-made version. I used sushi soy sauce, which is slightly sweeter than regular soy sauce, and didn’t add sugar. Next time I’d add a tiny bit of sugar to get a more traditional taste. I also added chopped green onions, a fairly typical variation. Once the little rectangular omelet is made, you slice it across the width for bento, showing the layers.

I then made some Japanese rice, which came out perfectly. The trick is apparently to buy the right kind in the first place, and then wash and drain it enough times that the water runs clear. I left half as plain rice and made the other half into sushi rice, put some in the fridge and froze the rest for later use. Then I blanched a big batch of spring asparagus and put some of that in the freezer too, vacuum-packed.

I made my lunch bento from what I had so far, including the Japanese rice and tamagoyaki on the bottom layer, sprinkled with a reddish-black Japanese condiment called ume-shiso, made from shiso leaves, Japanese plum, and sea salt. This was very tasty, but a little goes a long way. On the top layer was warm asparagus sprinkled with asiago cheese. The two were good separately but didn’t quite fit together. I’ll have to work on that.

Later, I headed out to the farmer’s market, which I missed the opening of last weekend, to see what I could find. There wasn’t much in terms of fruits and vegetable yet, mostly leafy greens, asparagus, apples and pears, and some early garlic tops. I already had the winter fruits and didn’t really need any of these, but picked up some spring herbs and greens for planting, including chard, green onions, tarragon, and cilantro. The meat, seafood, dairy, and bakeries were in full swing, and I picked up a bit of freshly smoked salmon, thick and juicy.

At the grocery I got various staples, more eggs, yogurt, cashews, and makings for shrimp shumai. I’ve made this before, and it’s fairly simple – throw a bunch of ingredients into a blender and presto, instant filling made of cabbage, carrot, green onion, cilantro, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, shrimp, and a dash of hot sauce. Put little balls into wonton wrappers moistened along the edges and making 30 of these takes almost no time at all. It was dinnertime by now, so I put 8 of these in the fridge for steaming up tomorrow and the rest to freeze individually on a cookie sheet, to be bagged up and used later. They can be steamed, cooked in broth, or fried in a bit of tasty oil in a pan (or deep-fried, but not in my kitchen).

Happy with what I got done today, dinner was relatively simple – rice with about 2 oz flaked smoked salmon, and cold asparagus with sushi vinegar. Not pretty enough to take pictures of, but yummy all the same :)

Bento to the rescue!

While we were on vacation, there was much foodie geekiness. Santa Fe had great food, and we continued the quest in Olympia when we arrived here, which has many exceptional restaurants also. In between, we geeked about Gretchen’s fabulous home cooking, farmer’s markets, sustainable organic food, gluten-free recipes, and the virtues of bento. This last had me up late at night reading Just Bento, among other things. Gretchen has been making bento boxes for my brother to take to work for quite a while, which you can see pictures of here. They’re amazing. And healthy. Brad is very happy, Gretchen’s having fun making them, and all their friends are jealous. Not to mention that they’ve both lost weight.

Bento is sort of the ultimate portion control, since you can only eat what fits in the box, and you can buy boxes that are the right size for your needs. As long as you don’t put ridiculous things in there (like fried foods or chocolate cake), you can pretty much put in whatever you want, and it will work – no counting required. I’ve thought for a long time that the Japanese diet is pretty much right for me – low-fat, about half carbs, plus fruits and veggies, and small amounts of protein, mostly in the form of seafood, veggie protein, and eggs. To that I add high-fiber cereal, nonfat milk, and espresso in the morning, and I’m good to go.

So the more I talked with Gretchen about it, the more I thought this could be really fun. Not only is it healthy, it would get me to be more mindful about my food and have more fun preparing it. I would have more different things in each meal, unlike my current habits, which are kind of make whatever is easy and eat that one thing (sometimes for several meals). We talked a lot about how to have a variety of different things always available to put in each box, even though the boxes themselves are really tiny. Another goal is aesthetic pleasure and color contrast, which also contributes to the healthiness of fruit and vegetable mixes.

A good proportion is 1 cup or so of some kind of starch, typically sushi rice, other kinds of rice, pasta, roasted new potatoes… lots of choices. That goes in the larger side of the box, and just about fills up that side. There can be other tidbits of things in there to pretty it up and add flavor. The other side of the box has protein and veggies, and fruits if it will fit. Brad’s lunches are bigger than mine, which are 600 ml. But my dinner box will be slightly larger at 750 ml, so I may be sticking mostly to carbs, veggies and fruits for lunch, and adding protein for dinner.

Here’s my first day’s lunch bento (not the best photo, but I’m still learning my camera!):

We had just gotten back from vacation and had no time to shop, so this was an experiment with whatever was in the house. The larger side has leftover couscous with chickpeas and roasted root vegetables, and the smaller side (which stacks above the other side) has a lettuce, beet, and goat cheese salad. Just a couple of days later, I am headed to a conference where there will be lots of lunch meetings and little opportunity to get lunch anywhere. I decided to try bringing everything I would need for bentos for the three days, since I have a small refrigerator in my hotel room. Here’s the lunch I had today, which I have also packed for tomorrow on the way to the conference, since I need to use up the ingredients:

This one has a slight variation on the salad above, which is beets, goat cheese, and green onions (no dressing needed). I really like this one, so don’t mind eating it twice in a row. There are also strawberries on that side, in the cute little silicone cups that are ubiquitously used in bento (they can be baked, frozen, and are largely nonstick – very handy). In the lower half is a store-bought (but well-made) sushi roll, since I did go shopping today, mixed with fresh snap peas. For my lunch tomorrow I’ll use up the rest of the roll (it’s all cooked, so safe if kept cool) and add in the pickled ginger and soy sauce packets from the store for traveling. This picture also shows the top of the box, which stacks over the other two layers and has a black elastic band to hold it all together.

For the other two days’ lunches, I made mushroom risotto and carefully measured out two cups to take (one per day), then froze the rest for future use. For the other side of the bento I have a clementine orange and strawberries with yogurt, and a mix of snap peas and water chestnuts – all things that will keep well. I’m kind of pleased that this was all easy to put together and I won’t have to be running around trying to figure out where to get lunch. This conference is stressful enough without that.

I’ve been traveling so much lately that I’ve inevitably put on weight (three meals a day out for a month in New Zealand didn’t help). This should be a big help and fun too. Hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoy making them :)