As a follow up to my pop tart post, I thought I would explore another area of food art, which thankfully does not require buttercream icing. It is bento, those adorable Japanese lunch boxes that house individual compartments of meticulously prepared food.
I have heard that in Japan, bento runs the gamut from simple fast food picked up in a convenience store to elaborately decorated works of food art. You can always count on the Japanese to bring an amazing sense of esthetics to whatever they do, even if they do at times have a strange weakness for kitsch. Take this photo of Hello Kitty sushi that recently made the rounds on Pinterest, (I’m not sure where it originated) and which I think speaks for itself.
Yes, suddenly Western-style food presentation seems horribly dull.
Bento recipes are great for a variety of reasons. They offer an approach to lunch which is much more diversified in terms of food groups than most Western lunch options. I love vegetables, and I find them very underused, outside of the omnipresent lettuce salad, on the American lunch scene. Bento often feature creative, colorful, vegetable-based dishes that look at beautiful as they taste.
I love that bento offers small amounts of a variety of foods for a meal, instead of a large pile of one thing, which is typical in American restaurants.The variety and portion control makes for a healthful approach to lunch. I think that if we all brought bento boxes to work instead of relying on the usual lunch out options, managing weight with an office job would probably be a bit easier. When my bento box arrived, my 12 year old cousin looked at it solemnly and remarked, “Oh, they don’t eat very much in Japan…”
Indeed, bento boxes are small and strictly enforce portion control. One recipe in the book Just Bento by Makiko Itoh, calls for one shredded carrot dressed with1/4 c dash stock, 1 tsp mirin, 1 tsp soy sauce and 1/2 tsp sugar. Serves 2-4!! 2-4??! 2 to 4 very thin people who require four meals to finish one carrot!! (In all fairness, I have noticed that Asian markets sometimes carry a variety of carrot that is truly very large compared to what we usually find here, and perhaps it is meant as more of a garnish, but still…) Cooking a variety of things in such small quantities strikes me as very time-consuming, so I stick to the simplest preparations when making a variety of dishes for one meal, but of course the recipes can be used however you wish and quantities can always be adapted, doubled, etc. based on your needs.
One final thing that is great about bento recipes is that they are designed to last through the morning, so there are lots of good ideas for packed lunches in general.
I finally got a bento box of my own, and so I’ve been experimenting with filling an authentic box. I will not be attempting Hello Kitty Sushi, but a rather more American-friendly turkey wrap, which is also reminiscent of sushi and looks quite pretty! My box will have the following items: A sandwich wrap, edamame with sesame vinaigrette, and a japanese scrambled egg, a slightly sweet cooked egg similar in taste to tamago if you’ve ever ordered that at a sushi restaurant. You can switch out the fillings of the wrap and use pretty much any chopped vegetable you like instead of edamame.
The first dish I prepared was inspired by Ree Drummond’s (AKA The Pioneer Woman) prairie sushi. Basically, it is a tortilla sandwich roll that you can fill however you want, but that looks great with a few brightly colored julienned vegetables.
- 1 flour tortilla
- 3 tbsp of cream cheese of your choice (Boursin would also be great)
- 2 slices deli turkey
- Thinly sliced carrots, green onion, red bell pepper, or other vegetable
Spread the cheese onto the tortilla in a thin, even layer all the way to the edge. Next lay down the meat, leaving a margin around the edge so the wrap will stick. Next lay the julienned vegetables down the center.
Next, roll the tortilla up firmly and wrap in plastic.
Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or longer. Remove plastic wrap and slice into segments.
Edamame in Sesame Vinaigrette
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- dash of garlic powder
- salt and pepper to taste
Blend the dressing ingredients in a bowl, and add:
- 1 cup prepared edamame beans, without shell (frozen works well)
- sesame seeds (optional)
Toss and serve.
Japanese Scrambled Egg
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp mirin (optional)
- dash of salt
Beat egg along with other ingredients and pour into a small frying pan. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon or chopsticks until egg is cooked through and crumbly.
Here is my bento box all assembled and ready for the day.
For more bento ideas and Japanese cooking demonstrations, check out the thoroughly weird and yet informative Cooking with Dog series on Youtube: