By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Far too often, the most uninspired meal of the day is the one I eat sitting at my desk, juggling a Cosi sandwich, napkin and computer mouse as I try to eat while writing or editing.
Of course, I don't have time to do it any other way. Who does? The term "lunch hour" has become an anachronistic joke, a reference to the sorts of three-martini affairs they have in the 1960s Madison Avenue world of AMC's "Mad Men," where the secretaries are the only ones brown-bagging it.
The problem is, that sandwich (plus iced tea and chips) can set me back $50 or $60 a week. And it just might have 40 grams of fat and more than 700 calories. Sure, I've found healthier, tasty options there and at Au Bon Pain, Juice Joint, Subway and Organic to Go, but even the most diligent exploration of takeout options usually leaves me yawning by the time noon rolls around.
The answer is clear, right? I should be more committed about bringing my own lunch, joining the increasing numbers of people who have realized the money and calories they can save by brown-bagging it on at least a semi-regular basis. According to the research group NPD, Americans took an estimated 8.5 billion lunches to work last year, up by 15 percent from 2003. The vast majority, 93 percent, told the researchers their primary reason for packing lunch was budgetary; NPD says the average fast-food lunch costs almost $6, three times as much as it costs to make it and bring it from home.
But bringing lunch from home can be as ho-hum as waiting in line at Cosi, where that free bowl of trimmed pieces of warm bread can provide only so much excitement.
Count me among those for whom my brought-from-home lunch usually consists of the very definition of uninspired: leftovers. Maybe it's my short attention span or maybe it's because as a solo cook I'm already burdened with such remains, but I rarely get much of a thrill out of eating the same thing -- only worse -- that I ate the previous night.
An informal survey of about 50 of my colleagues turned up many of the same issues, along with some kernels of inspiration. Sure, many of them bring leftovers, and there was more than one PB&J in the group, but others find ways to cook something for lunch every day.
Some use enviable systems of coordination and organization to help with the morning rush. One makes extra, plainer portions of chicken or the like when preparing the family's dinner the night before, then retools it into chicken salad or some such for lunch the next day. Some make big batches of soups, beans or pasta sauces on weekends, freeze them in individual containers and bring them in (combined with rice or pasta if need be) during the week. And then there are those who do some cooking at work beyond the microwave; one toasts bread in a communal toaster oven and wraps it around store-bought sausages.
In my quest for new staples for my lunch bag, I was after something a little fresher, something that doesn't need to exist between two pieces of bread. Beyond the challenge of finding great artisan loaves in Washington, I've always found sandwiches too disappointing at my desk; the bread seems to quickly become stale or soggy, and I have never been committed enough to pack the elements separately and assemble them when it's time to eat.
Then I remembered how, years ago, in a more organized frame of mind, I always managed to keep the makings of lunch in my refrigerator: salad greens, noodles or pasta, grains, olives, cheeses, roasted red peppers. Could I return to such a mind-set, especially with the right recipe in hand?
I found a great jumping-off point in spicy peanut soba noodles on Heidi Swanson's stellar blog, 101Cookbooks.com. Soba is one of my go-to foods for picnics, so why not lunch?
I changed the peanut butter to my preferred almond butter, swapped edamame for the tofu she called for, and subbed red bell pepper (in season now) for asparagus (in season when she wrote her recipe). The beauty of this dish, which has made it into my lunchtime rotation, is that the whole four-serving batch of soba noodles can be made in advance but keeps its texture and taste in the fridge for several days. All the other elements can keep separately, too, only to be thrown together the night before or even the morning of. And if I feel like shaking things up, substitutions are boundless.
It also can sit on my desk for a few hours without refrigeration, and it's best eaten at room temperature, no microwave required.
The same goes for my other recipe, a Mediterranean-style whole-wheat couscous salad, which can be made in advance or can come together one serving at a time, using boiling water from a teakettle and a single bowl. Once the couscous is cooked and fluffed, I toss in the olives, feta, tomatoes and canned artichoke hearts.
As it happens, neither dish is very wet, which solves another problem. They aren't prone to leaking out of a less-than-airtight container while jostling around on the walk to work.
Now all I need is a strategy for the one brown-bag challenge that remains: remembering to bring the lunch once I've prepared it. Nothing is more frustrating than making Spicy Almond Noodles With Edamame, then leaving it in the fridge at home and having to fetch a takeout lunch anyway. Thankfully, those noodles make a fine dinner, too.
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