When I was in elementary school, my mother used to pack hot lunches for my brother and me in little baby “bento” thermos sets that we bought on a trip to Asia. Each set had a little tiered thermos, matching-colored chopsticks in a case, and a coordinating gingham drawstring bag to hold it all. My set was pink; my brother’s was red. My American friends all brought igloo mini-coolers or brown bags, but none of them had a cute lunch set that kept lunch piping hot until it was time to eat. Last summer, I dove back into the world of bento again when I discovered through one of my favorite craft sites that bento is starting to become a bit of a craze in the craft-oriented-blog community, especially on the West Coast. This time, there are all sorts of fun and cute accessories that are available for organizing one’s lunch, keeping foods separate, and controlling portion size. What a great idea, I thought! I loved the idea of keeping food neatly separated in one’s lunch (I’m the kind of OCD person who hates it when the different dishes on her dinner plate mix and “contaminate” one another, and brown bag lunches where everything was squished together in sandwich bags had lost their appeal around the time I graduated high school). I was already bringing my lunch to work each day in a set of stacking tupperware containers, so when I found that there were far less-clumsy nesting containers and affordable garnish tools available, I went to the Japanese discount store Daiso and bought myself a set for $3 ($1.50 for the two-tier box, $1.50 for the band). Since then my collection has expanded to include cookie cutters, molds for shaping hard-boiled eggs into cars and fish, and a little plastic press that will pack rice into bear, star, or heart-shaped pats called “onigiri” that can easily be made ahead of time en masse, frozen, and defrosted a few at a time when needed.
Because I eat at a dining hall during the school year, I haven’t had the chance to do much bento-making since late September (with the exception of the few times I brought a bagel sandwich along with me to meetings — I have this round container that exactly fits one medium sized bagel). So when I got home, I was itching to try it out on my parents, who bring food to work with them almost every day. Much to my disappointment, neither of them wanted a nicely packed lunch even though I offered several times to make lunches for them. (Something I don’t understand at all: my dad apparently prefers putting a bunch of random leftover and an apple in sandwich bags and stuffing them in his briefcase, and my mom doesn’t even really eat food at work. I was horrified to discover that she has this freezer bag full of a mishmash of half-eaten snacks — chocolate, airplane pretzels, cookies that she keeps in the bag she brings to work, along with a cup of extra-strong tea. Her only concession to meal-type food is prepackaged yogurt).
Today, though, I was sneaky and managed to send my mom to work with a snack bento, because she was running late and asked me to make her some tea. Since she was upstairs and not watching what I was doing, I took the opportunity to pack her not just a cup of tea, but an assortment of (heathier) snacks, too. When she came down, she was in too much of a rush to refuse what I put in her hands. Success!
Here it is in all its glory:
(Clockwise from upper left: DanActive yogurt drink, Chinese tea cake, herbs and garlic water crackers, clementine; napkin under the crackers. It’s packed in a knockoff lock-n-lock type container).
I also got a little into the spirit with my own lunch. Since I was eating in front of a computer I didn’t feel the need to pack it into a lidded container, but I did use a clean, recycled frozen food tray to make me feel as if I was eating it on the go!
(Left Half: “American” fried rice
The “American” fried rice was really a leftover remix. It’s not really fried rice in the sense of the Chinese dish since it has no eggs and uses American ingredients, but since I did make it with leftovers and I pan fried it to make it a little crispy, I’m calling it “fried rice” anyway. For the mix-ins, you could probably use some pine nuts, cubed chicken, or sausage coins to make it really yummy, but we had some cooked ground pork hanging out in our fridge, so I used that because I wanted to help get rid of it.
Mushroom and Pesto “Fried Rice”
4 medium oyster mushrooms
1 small shallot
1.5 cups leftover white rice
0.5 cup mix-ins (see above for suggestions)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp basil pesto
1 large-ish pat of butter (not too much or it’ll be greasy!)
salt and pepper to taste.
1) Chop oyster mushrooms and shallot finely.
2) Heat skillet over medium flame. Add oil, pesto, butter.
3) When butter is melted, add shallots and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Sautee until shallots are almost cooked
4) Add in any meat-based mix-ins and let sizzle for a few minutes.
5) Add in leftover rice. Use a spatula to combine ingredients in the pan and to break up any large clumps of rice. Stir the mixture constantly (you don’t want it to burn!). If extra crispiness is desired , let it sit for a few minutes before turning off the flame. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.