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Cooking for One: Take time to 'cook' at work

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; E01

I'd ask whether you eat lunch at your desk, but I know the answer already: Most days, I bet you do. As companies have trimmed their staffs, those who remain are working longer hours with fewer breaks.

As much as I believe in the power of a midday pause, I'm often as guilty as anyone else of dashing out, grabbing takeout and returning to eat in front of the computer. When I'm not brown-bagging it, that is.

It's not the most healthful approach, perhaps mentally even more than physically. I've read about Take Back Your Lunch, a movement started by the Energy Project that encourages workers to reclaim the lunch hour, and of course it makes sense to fuel creativity by stepping away and relaxing, even to see friends or to network. One colleague of mine is the king of the indulgent lunch, giving no thought to cabbing off to Alexandria for the prix-fixe special at Restaurant Eve or taking the Metro to Arlington for a hit of Ray's Hell-Burger. And he's plenty productive at work.

Even if I made the time, though, here's a news flash: My office is nicely air-conditioned, and in the recent triple-digit heat downtown, I would rather do anything than step outdoors, especially around noon. When I head down to The Post's cafeteria, trying to find something appealing at the so-called Around the World Bar, let's just say that it doesn't bode well for the rest of the day.

The compromise? I take the time to cook lunch myself. I should probably put quote marks around that operative verb, because compared with what I usually do at home, this might not exactly be considered cooking. Nonetheless, for someone like me who finds the kitchen the most meditative room in the house, it's still almost as soothing to cobble together something in our office's kitchenette as it is to chop, heat, slice and stir at home.

I've made a game of it. What ingredients can I bring to work and store in my dorm-size fridge or desk drawers that will last without quickly spoiling (or annoying my office mates); can pack enough flavor to allow me to forgo spices and seasonings; and can be made with the simplest of equipment?

Smoked, cured and/or otherwise fully cooked sausages, herb-brined olives and canned sardines go to the front of the line. Right behind is tomato paste in a tube, which, unlike its canned counterpart, is more convenient for single-serving recipes. Canned beans (I prefer the low-sodium or no-salt-added variety) are ready whenever you are. Instant couscous and angel-hair pasta nests are shelf-stable and cook in minutes.

Best of all, these ingredients can be prepared using the typical appliances in office kitchens.

Truth be told, I do sometimes employ a toaster oven at work, but in acknowledgment of the fact that many offices aren't as well equipped, I resisted developing recipes for this column that way. Instead, my instruments have been the microwave and teakettle. At home, I use the former for two things: reheating and cooking a potato or sweet potato. At work, its job has been limited to "cooking" -- really just heating -- toppings for that pasta and couscous.

The teakettle does what teakettles do: boil water, a key step in making instant couscous. I've also taken advantage of the fact that angel-hair pasta is delicate enough that once boiling water has been added, its residual heat can get the noodles to al dente in a few minutes flat. I also have been known to "blanch" vegetables such as snow peas, sugar snaps and broccoli using the same technique.

At first, I was a little hamstrung by the kitchen tools, or lack thereof. What passes for a sharp knife in our office would prompt any culinary instructor to launch into a lecture about the importance of cutlery maintenance. And forget measuring cups or a big cutting board.

No matter. A dull paring knife can still handle olives, spinach leaves and sausage. Sardines barely need breaking up with a fork. The container of instant couscous comes with its own measuring scoop, and I found a plastic leftover-food container that has cup markings on the side for the water that will hydrate the couscous. Mostly, measurements aren't needed; I boil as much water as possible to keep the pasta from getting gummy, and I eyeball everything else.

Preparing food at work comes with etiquette issues, the types of behaviors that prompt those "Your Mother Doesn't Work Here" signs. I keep things clean enough, but I've been worried about those sardines. After all, I've been in some offices that specifically forbid fish in the microwave, because the device has a way of carrying the odor across time and space. But with a paper towel over the fish and just enough time to heat the small amount I use, I've avoided the wrath of others.

After several weeks of experiments, my pasta with sardines was pungently satisfying, but the couscous-and-sausage concoction was so simple it verged on boring. That's when another crucial ingredient became mandatory. Now, one thing I always keep in my desk drawer is a little bottle of Tabasco.

I don't think I'll be completely satisfied with my workplace cooking, though, until I cross one remaining hurdle. Once the weather cools, I am going to try my darnedest, after I whip up something in our kitchenette, to carry the plate or bowl not back to my desk, but up to a roof-deck patio. And maybe even to invite a colleague to do the same.

Recipes

Lunch-Hour Couscous With Sausage, Chickpeas and Spinach

Lunch-Hour Pasta With Sardines

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