Archive for April, 2007

So, Italy –
I was working, so there wasn't much time to go and explore the city. But I did manage to go to the market and practice some of my old favourite, hip-shot photography.
The thing with me and markets is that I love to photograph and capture the unique atmosphere on camera. But the second you whip out your cam, people stop acting natural! The natural solution to this is, of course, to shoot from the hip – no painstaking setup or framing allowed, zoom out your cam and shoot as fast as possible.
The Sony Cybershot that I took on the travel is surprisingly good for this – tiny enough to carry half-concealed in your hand, and fast enough at focusing to manage almost blurless photos. Well, almost… but at least it’s fast.

You thought you’d see Italians at an Italian market? Wrong! Markets are multicultural everywhere, especially in Europe. Another reason why I love them!

Apart from that, I didn’t have much time to take photos of Italian culture. I sampled some restaurants, and their house wines (it’s usually a good idea to order the house wine in Italy, as it’s both good and cheap in most restaurants) but didn’t take photos.
I did take photos of the airline lunches though – most European airlines have stopped serving food on short-range flights, as it’s simply not worth it anymore. The Italian airline had a very nice idea though – they handed out boxes filled with samples of regional organic food! Even though most was prepackaged, the items were delicious.

More later! I should pack a lunch in my new boxes.

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Bento loot!

crossposted to :

No bento today either, sorry. I am still very busy and zooming from place to place, jetsetting in fancy hotels around the world. (Or so I would like it to sound.)
But I did have time to go to a Japanese store today and saw that they had added new bento boxes and accessories to their stock! So here’s the loot…

Excuse the bad lighting today, I’m just about awake enough to take pictures at all…

Mayonaise cups (finally!), onigiri molds, and TWO new bento boxes!

A 500 ml, 3-compartment box, with a matching tissue and a very nicely sealing lid. The text on the lid, which is sadly blurry on this picture, says:
“We are passionate about lunch communication. The lunch is a good day pastime.”
Sweet, ne?

I think this one is the jackpot, though. A 500ml thermos jar with an additional ~200ml normal jar that stacks on top of it. The lid of the thermos is an isolated seal, the normal jar comes with a screwtop. And the bag it comes in is just fantastic! I can’t wait to try this one out!

More on Italian airplane snackboxes (sadly no HK bentos, but at least something), markets and other stuff later…

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Totoro has come to my little windowsill garden and made things sprout! So I celebrated him in a Bento.

Salmon Teriyaki with rice and carrot salad; Totoro scene cut from nori.

I spent entirely too much time doing Nori-scissor cutouts for this one.
I re-did the nori once because it shriveled up from the moisture in the rice before I could get a good photo. This one is still slightly shriveled, so I'm not entirely happy, but OK.

What I learned about cutting Nori:
Use a small, sharp scissor, ideally with a pointed tip. Don't use knives – all they do is break the nori. It's very much like paper, but much thinner – I couldn't use the force I normally apply when cutting paper because quick movements with the scissor can rip the Nori. This also means that I can't do as long, curved cuts as I normally do – I had to work my way very carefully and in steps.
When the nori gets in contact with heat or moisture, it shrivels up. Be careful that your fingers are dry! Other bento blogs recommend putting cheese under the nori to keep it from shriveling, but that sounds quite gross to me – I need to figure out something else to put my Nori cutouts on.

Teriyaki recipe:
Teriyaki sauce:
1 Tsp. freshly grated ginger (I have mine frozen and shave off thin slices with a really sharp knife. When I try to grate it all it does is stick to the grater, so the knife technique works much better for me.)
1 clove crushed or finely chopped garlic
1/3-1/2 finely chopped onion
1 Tsp. sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sake; I used white wine this time because I don't have sake. Other recipes recommend substituting water and sherry, or rice vinegar. The white wine was an experiment but it came out nicely.

Marinate the meat/fish in the sauce mixture for at least an hour (up to 8).
Put everything in an ovenfast pan and broil at about 200C until the meat is cooked and crispy. Occasionally spoon sauce over the meat to prevent it from drying out.

Also from this day: Froggy breakfast!

I too got inspired by the photos outofthisplace posted yesterday!

Breakfast box, so only one layer (I posted the lunch box last evening already):
Bell pepper froggy! The eyes are dried soybeans that I painted with marker since I don’t have blackeyed peas. :)
Half a wholewheat toast with cottage cheese, sunflower sprouts and bell pepper chips (left over from the froggy), carrot shaves as color contrast.
Under the froggy: more sunflower sprouts and chocolate wheat cereal as a snack for during the day.

Remember to take a look over to The Daily Tiffin for my and ss_biggie’s Tuesday columns!

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A pick-me-up bento for tomorrow, with pretty colors and healthy veg and rice!

Brown rice bibimbap with eggplant, leek, carrot, pickled radish, spinach and sliced sweet omelette, all fried in a little sesame oil and some salt and sugar.
Gochujang in the foil triangle on one side, a Rocher and some mini-marshmallows on the other.

Technically vegetarian, but I found out that the gochujang sauce brand I am using has meat stock in the ingredients list. Dang. I hope I can find one that doesn’t – I don’t mind so far, but I can tell it from the smell when I color rice with gochujang.

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Back from the easter break with bentos! I need to buy new vegetables tomorrow, since my fridge is yawning empty. I was lucky to even have this much!

Being an expatriate, I suffered the fate of not having painted eggs of my own this easter… so I made a tea marbled egg for tomorrow! (“Hey, brown is a color, right?”)

This box is not actually a bento box. It’s a plastic box from IKEA that has a metal cheesegrater top, but also a lid for storing things later. I was looking at it the other day and thought “This is the perfect size and shape for a bento box!” So here it is.
The lid isn’t very tight but closes fast enough if you use a bandana as well.

Rice, the last of my broccoli patties (which I froze before the easter break), a marbled egg chick and some sweet pickled radish which I also made to use it up before leaving for the easter break. It came out rather nice, even though I can’t judge if it tastes like it is supposed to. I like it, though.
Carrot flowers for decoration.

Pickled radish and tea marbled eggs are some really simple recipes that I dredged from the internet pretty much on a whim. They are rather nice and effective though! I love the smell and taste the marbling added to the egg. :D

Tea marbled egg recipe
Hardboil eggs, take them out of the water and cool them down so you can hold them without burning yourself. Don’t peel!
With a spoon, break the shell so there is a pattern of cracks all around it.
Add 1-2 teaspoons of black tea, 1 teaspoon of five spice powder, 2-3 teaspoons of soy sauce, salt and some star anise pods to the water.
I didn’t have five spice powder, but I made some myself by grinding some roasted Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, cardamom (the recipe asks for fennel seeds but I don't use them as people in my family are allergic to it) and cinnamon. I stored the leftovers in a box for later.
Boil for another 30 minutes and then let soak for at least 3 hours.

I read in a science mag the other day why hardboiled eggs sometimes get an ugly, greenish border between the yellow and the white. The explanation is this: When you boil an egg, iron and sulphur is released from the egg yellow. Those react at the yellow’s border, creating greenish iron sulphide. The longer you cook the egg, the more of the elements will react and the more noticeable the border will be.
It isn’t dangerous or unhealthy, just chemistry at work – and sadly, you can’t get pretty marbled eggs without it! I carefully scraped off most of the off-colored border from my chick with a knife edge before adding the decoration.

Pickled Daikon Radish recipe
To be found here.

Update from the window sill garden:
The self-watering pots seem to have held well over the easter break – there’s only one casualty, the basil which seems to have drunk more than we thought it would. It was not entirely dry yet though, so maybe we can save some sprigs.

Here’s a picture of the chilies, which really thrived while we were away!

They grew a good 10 cm and went from 4 timid leaves to this in just 4 days! I’m amazed!
As you can see, the self-watering pots are really simple constructs made with simple storebought pots, leka balls, some fibertex, a PVC pipe, dirt and a fast-food restaurant straws corked with some foam. I may ask the BF to make a diagram some day, but I’m too lazy now…

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What is Bento?
A traditional bentobox in 'My neighbour Totoro'.A simple explanation would be that it is the Japanese word for lunchbox. But that would be a gross understatement.
If you are at all interested in Japanese food or culture, you have probably seen the word before on a Sushi bar's menu, or even saw it mentioned in one of the popular anime series around. But for the Japanese people, bento is much more than sushi arranged in a compartmented plate in a restaurant, or a quick lunch to take to school. In fact, making pretty boxed lunches is such an essential skill in Japan it is hard to find any woman that has not mastered it!
With Japanese culture becoming more popular in the Western world, bento making has started to become popular all over the world. There are communities for bentomaking springing up on the internet, one of which (http://bentolunch.livejournal.com) has drawn me in since last summer as well.

So what is so special about it?
One of the main points about bento boxes is that “the eye also eats” – meaning that apart from nourishing, the food should also be attractive on a visual basis.
I can relate to that very well myself – after all, I too have frustrated my mother all the way through ground school by refusing to eat the sandwiches she packed for me. Not because they tasted bad, mind you – but a sandwich in a bag or a box is just not all that attractive anymore after being rolled around in your school bag for a few hours. With making bento, I find that boxed lunches can be much more appealing and creative than a simple, quickly thrown-together sandwich or leftover pasta-with-sauce in my colleagues' lunchboxes! Bentos are little meals in and of themselves, pleasing to the eye and interesting to the palate.
It is also a rather budget hobby – I often find myself using up leftovers that I would have otherwise thrown away as unappealing in new, creative ways that make the food much more appetizing to me.
And finally – who can resist actually getting commended for what is, in essence, playing with your food?

So it is just a glorified lunchbox?
You could call it that – but the idea behind it is also of a very balanced, healthy meal.
Generally, Japanese bento boxes are a little smaller than western lunch boxes – 550ml seems to be the average volume of a one- or two-tiered box. For full-grown Europeans or Americans, this may seem tiny, unless you are a good breakfaster or on a diet. However, there are ways to pack the boxes so small meals do become quite filling!
Traditionally, bento boxes call for a 4:3:2:1 ratio of starch (rice), protein (meat/vegetarian equivalent), vegetables and desserts/condiments. This is not to be seen as an iron rule, but it does promote healthy eating and makes sure the meal is balanced and filling. It also means that as opposed to leftovers-boxes or sandwich lunches, it is a real meal, with different dishes and a complete spectrum of nutritients.

Is Bento only about Japanese food?
Not at all! While many of us incorporate Japanese or other Asian dishes in our boxes, there are few limits to what you can put in your boxes.
The main things you want to avoid are food that spoils easily and food that relies on liquid sauces that cannot be reinstated by adding water later. Many bento makers will also not rewarm their food but eat it at room temperature – in that case you should make sure that the food you pack can be eaten cold or use a thermal lunch jar if you don't have the possibility to use a microwave. I also have a special lunchbox for bringing soup, but I would NOT recommend those for children in any case.
Another important point in packing is to keep food from becoming soggy in the box. If you don't have a box with compartments like the laptop lunch, you may want to use foil cups or dividers if you can't avoid wet and dry food touching otherwise. If you are bringing a sauce or liquid condiments such as ketchup, use a small bottle or sealable cup for it – there are many budget options if you don't want to go all-out on bento-specific gear.

Show us your box!
A not-so-traditional bento boxI have been debating with myself which one of my boxes to showcase for my first column here – a traditional Japanese dish, or a European one for a simpler intro. In the end, I decided against the traditional Japanese food, on the grounds that while I like the food, this article is about presentation and making healthier food attractive to your children as much as it is about the boxes themselves. There will be plenty of time to introduce traditional Japanese lunchbox items and recipes in the following articles.

This lunchbox contains:

  • Vegetarian tortellini with homemade tomatosauce:
    The tortellini are storebought, but of an organic wholemeal variant, and filled with ricotta and spinach. It is a good idea to look out for wholemeal food in your boxes, as it is both more filling and healthier, especially if we're talking about premade food.
    The tomato sauce is one of my 5-minutes-in-the-morning recipes that become the staple of every bento-er's boxes: finely diced vegetables and olives, roasted in a dash of olive oil and simmered with some crushed tomatoes. It is very low on fat and tastes much fresher than generic pasta sauces!

  • Cucumber and apple star cutouts:
    Both the cucumbers and apples are simply sliced, dipped in a little lemon water to prevent browning and cut into shapes with ordinary cookie cutters. Cookie cutters are the pillars of cute lunchboxes! Japanese cooking catalogues have pages upon pages of interesting, elaborate shapes to cut your vegetables, but this simple christmas cookie set I have is a good start.

  • Wholemeal bread rollups with banana, lemon curd and peanut butter and little clock faces made of Thai basil:
    Rolling flat bread up and slicing it is a great way of presentation that I took over from sushi. This way breadrolls also make tasty finger food for snacking on!
    Thai basil is a herb mostly used in Thai kitchen that looks like basil when it grows, but has a very different taste that reminds me a little of liqorice. It fits with curries as well as in sweet and savory food and looks great as decoration. Another green leaf that's great for decoration of sweet food and fruit is mint, of course.

I eat vegetarian most of the time, though I do eat fish and seafood on occasion to up my protein intake. Because of this, my lunches are usually a little more starch-heavy (and of course, limited in protein) than traditional boxes. Fresh fish is not a very good idea to bring if you haven't got a fridge or are eating it right away!

More lunches to come,

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Off for the easter break tomorrow! So today’s dinner was a frantic “use up the leftover veggies” cookfest :D

Upper layer: Broccoli and cheese patties, Mozarella and tomato caprese, a bottle of extra balsamico (I love vinegar!), lettuce as divider.
Lower layer: Rice with carrot and thai basil deco.

I bought two bunches of broccoli because they were on sale – then I realized that we should use them before going away. So since somebody had mentioned broccoli nuggets on this community, I tried making my own broccoli patties… I must say they are rather a success! Next time I will use a tastier cheese than Mozarella though, it could use the extra salt.
Blanch 1 1/2 heads of broccoli (I froze the rest), chop them into small pieces.
Grate two potatoes, press out the liquid.
Grate cheese (mozarella or cheddar seems to be good)
In a bowl, mix the above stuff with 2-3 eggs, parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper to taste. I also added some curry powder and chopped leek that I had left over for extra tastiness.
Heat oven to 200 degrees C. On an oiled pan, put the broccoli mixture in little heaps on top of some breadcrumbs. Flatten and top with some more breadcrumbs (and cheese if you like). Cook until golden brown and melty. Eat!

Next time I will probably decrease the size of the broccoli bits and make the patties more dough-like to make it easier to fit into a bento. I was afraid it would come out too mushy with smaller bits, but the broccoli seems to keep the taste rather well.
It would probably be easier to pan-fry or deepfry the patties as well, but since I am cooking low-fat, I can’t do that. Luckily, you can replace “deepfry” with “brush lightly with olive oil and ovenbake” in most recipes, as well as for rewarming minispringrolls and dumplings.

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I made a lot of nummy food over the weekend, so I put all the leftovers into bentos!
…yes, I’m a glutton – but I don’t eat breakfast, so bringing an extra box is OK, right?

First, my two boxes for work:

Pre-dish – butternut squash soup and condiments (wholewheat toast croutons with sesame, thai basil, carrot strips, leek and grilled asparagus).

I managed to find a butternut squash at a supermarket here – any kind of pumpkin is super-rare, so I jumped on it as soon as I saw it! I love pumpkin soup.

The recipe is simple and delicious, based on this Epicurean.com recipe.
I used a capful of soy sauce instead of the fish sauce though, and added a dash or two of curry when frying the squash.

Crabstick, avocado and leek mayo rolls, tamagoyaki and avocado, a rose of pickled ginger, some wasabi hidden under the rose and a pack of soy leftover from my last sushi takeout.

And one for the BF:

Maki and Tamago bee with leek antennae and wings, and a flowerbed of croutons, avocado and leek “grass” and carrot flowers.
Since he’s probably going to eat it at home, the soup and condiments aren’t shown.

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