Monday, September 1, 2014

School Lunch 101 - How to Score an A+ in Lunch Prep

Middle Eastern Meatball Wraps

If you have a kid who only wants to eat a ham sandwich with an apple every single day, you are a lucky woman who should stop gloating but you don't need to read this. For those of us who have kids who love food and demand some variety when it comes to their lunches, read on.

This is a bit of a rehash for what I wrote last year at this time, but bear with me because this time I am going to show you a few of the things I use to make my life easier and give you ten more recipe ideas to carry you through the school year.

I am not really the most organized person on earth but, somehow, I manage to shine when it comes to packing lunches. Until he was in grade 7, The Kid ate the lunch provided by his school so I only had to make a packed lunch from time to time and it was a fun novelty. I would get up an hour early, make him sushi or onigiri and send him off to the Science Centre, knowing that he would not be coming home hungry but with barely touched food in his bag.

In grade 7, the catered lunch gravy train came to a screeching halt and suddenly I had to pack lunch four days a week (Friday was the day they went out and bought lunch to bring back to school). Look, I love my kid, I really do, but there was no way I was getting up early every morning to make fresh sushi so something had to happen. He didn't really eat sandwiches at that point and was getting too big for just a bento style lunch of pita bread, dips and veggies cut into animal shapes, so what to do?

Bottom line is that, annoying as my sandwich snubbing kid was, I created this food snob and now I had to feed him. I won't admit it to him because I like being able to hold all these fabulous lunches over his head when I need to, but, once you get this stuff down and have a well stocked freezer, it's not any more work to whip up some butter chicken with basmati with naan than it is to open a can of salmon.
Shhhhhhhhh. It's good practice to dab some water on your brow to make it look like you worked up a sweat in the kitchen and bashing pots and pans around in there to drown out the beep of the microwave while I threaten to send him to school with dry bologna on Wonder Bread if he doesn't buck up.

So, my favourite equipment:

Zojirushi Insulated Bento 

By now, I have this thing down to a science. We have two different soft lunch bags for cold lunches and I finally bought him a Zojirushi insulated bento thermos, which gets the most use. It's an investment but, for us, it was a godsend. The Kid prefers to eat a hot lunch but once he started high school, he no longer had easy access to the toaster oven and microwave that they had in his classroom at his magical unicorn school.

This thing keeps food piping hot (I never use it for cold food but it will do that too), it is durable and their customer service is amazing if you ever need any replacement parts. You could also just use an insulated food thermos like one of these but the bento works better for us because he likes miso soup most days so we really do use all three containers in the bento. The coolest part about this thing is that the lid of the middle container is insulated so that it creates a heat barrier, keeping the lower two nice and hot while the top container stays closer to room temp so I can put cut up bread, pita, raw veggies,  dessert or even a bit of salad in the top one and it won't wilt or get weird. Oh, and it comes with a spork (HOW MUCH DO I LOVE THAT WORD??) and a set of chopsticks in a case.

We have a regular insulated lunch bag that he takes on days when it's a sandwich, sushi, or other cold lunches. My favourites are the lunch bags from LandsEnd  because they are durable and cute and are pretty indestructible but you can get a good bag from The Gap, Old Navy, Loblaws, Canadian Tire or any department store.

It's great having spots for salad dressing and wet ingredients - no more soggy salad

I bought a Rubbermaid Lunch Blox and so far I like it. You freeze the removable base that the box sits on in the lunch bag and it's great for salad or for cold soba noodles, pasta salad etc. We have the salad kit but as you can see, there are lots of different configurations that all look good, depending on what kind of food you are sending. We eat a lot of salad so this one works for us. You just throw the blue bottom in the freezer and the bowls sits right in that in the lunch box so you don't need another, bulky freezer pack.

I also use it to do noodle bowls. I put cold buckwheat soba noodles in the large container with some leftover meat or tofu or something and then anything that would get soggy goes up top and the soy sauce/sesame oil sauce goes in the salad dressing container. You could do the same with cold pasta so they can have pasta salad without the pasta getting all waterlogged after sitting in it's dressing all morning. It's awesome.

ziploc perfect portions

I measure out one serving size portions of stews, curries, and chili into these bags and then fill a bigger freezer bag with the single serving portions. I also freeze serving size portions of rice in these bags.
The night before, I pull out a bag of rice and a bag of stew or curry and let them thaw overnight in the fridge. In the morning, you just heat it up in the main container of the bento or to put into a food thermos.

They are also great for freezing individual pieces of meat - you just put the bag over your hand like a glove, pick up the chicken breast or pork chop, turn the bag inside out, press out all the air and tie the top in a knot. You never have to touch a raw chicken boob again.

Of course, I also have a collection of small containers of various shapes and sizes that I use for dips like hummus and tzatziki and little bottles that I found for salad dressing that look like this:

save little condiment containers from take out orders, etc to use for vinaigrettes, dips, etc

My ten ideas for lunches for adventurous eaters from this time last year

My 10 favourite recipes of 2014 for making ahead and freezing:

Burritos: You can turn any leftover into a burrito style wrap. A smear of guacamole, refried beans, hummus topped with a bit of rice or quinoa, some sort of shredded meat or canned tuna or salmon, roasted veggies, tomato, maybe a drizzle of salsa or tzatziki and you have a wrap. Not only do I keep a stash or ready made burritos in the freeser (they also make a great, quick dinner on the run) but I try to keep a few 10" flour tortillas in there too.
beef and mushroom burritos from your freezer stash

Middle Eastern Meatball Wraps

I just pop these cod fritters straight from the freezer into a 400F oven for ten minutes in the morning while I am getting everything ready and throw them in his bento, sometimes on a bed of butter rice but he will eat them on their own with his fingers too.

Tamales are another thing that are fun to make all together as a group and then you just reheat them in a steamer or in the microwave in the morning

easy chinese style bbq pork is great over rice, or in a sandwich

Saucy BBQ Pork that cooks itself in the crockpot - great for sandwiches, wraps or on rice

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Week in Yum Aug 23-Aug 29 Nakayoshi Izakaya and prepping for Awestruck

age dashi tofu at Nakayoshi Izakaya

This was another light week and I am sure my body is thanking me for that. I was sick all weekend so apart from water, tea and handfuls of potato chips, my sustenance of choice when I have any type of flu like ailment, I abstained entirely. I am sure The Kid ate something here and there but I can't even remember anything apart from hearing ramblings of ramen and sprite.

Nakayoshi Izakaya

I finally broke my fast with a bowl of spicy miso ramen from Nakayoshi Izakaya on Danforth. Shack and I have both driven by this place a thousand times but, for some reason, I just assumed it wasn't going to be any good. The sushi places in the Greek area of the Danforth tend to be pretty pedestrian, all you can eat places so I guess I thought this would be the same but with noodles.

Illness will make you desperate though and I wasn't up to a drive to Markham or downtown so we popped in to check it out. Only two other tables were occupied and I almost bailed but the spotless, warmly lit interior, not to mention that delicious smells coming from the kitchen, convinced me to sit down and give this place a chance. If I could find a decent bowl of ramen in the east end, it would greatly improve my life.
The Kid drained his bowl of tempura udon and the salad was big enough for two

Our server was a lovely,  young lady who was clearly full of enthusiasm but appeared to be mildly overwhelmed by the task of taking care of her three tables. A couple of service snafus like forgetting to give us any sort of utensil to eat with or bringing water to the table after we asked her for it were forgiven once that steaming bowl of spicy miso ramen was set in front of me. It really was everything you could want. There was a generous amount of thinly sliced, tender roast pork, half a hard boiled egg, corn and some bamboo shoots. The noodles were chewy and properly cooked, the miso broth was appropriately thick and it , as advertised, spicy which is not always the case. I have discovered Japanese spicy is not my spicy but it was actually hot enough to warrant a dab of the nose with my napkin....oh wait, she never brought us any of those. No matter. Shack got up and swiped the place settings from a nearby table and really, she was adorable, but I wouldn't like to see what happens when the joint is jumping.

california rolls were fresh, light and exactly as they should be

We all thoroughly enjoyed our noodles, a really fresh, oversized green salad and perfectly done age dashi tofu. In fact, the only other time I have seen The Kid finish his whole bowl is when we eat at Kinton because the silly bugger says he prefers my noodle bowls. At under $10 per bowl, prices were  totally in line for everything we ordered although Shack remained obsessed with the $15 pricetag on the dragon rolls, which does seem pretty steep but we weren't there for the specialty rolls. In fact, many of the non noodle bowl menu offerings did seem a bit on the steep side, with lunch specials going for $12.50 in a neighbourhood were you can get the same deals for almost half the price.

Bottom line is that there is finally a decent ramen to be had in the east end of the city and that should make everyone just a little bit happier.

Nakayoshi Izakaya on Urbanspoon

The only other dining experience I had this week was at The Hard Rock Cafe at Dundas Square to celebrate a dear friend's birthday with a gaggle of kids in tow. It is actually the very first time I have ever been to a Hard Rock Cafe and the food was pretty much what I expected. My wings were not the worst I have ever had, our server was fabulous, the company was amazing and a great time was had by all. Will I ever go back there the next time I am peckish and I find myself a stone's throw from The Salad King?

Is that really a question?

I am just saying, I ate there, nobody died and I had a great time with my friends and I scored a fabulous pair of pewter Vans on the walk back to the car.

even mom needs new back to school metallic kicks

I spent the rest of the week tinkering with my recipe for Keftedes for the Blend and Extend campaign that will be appearing soon on the blog for Mushrooms Canada. This will be my very first offering as a guest blogger for Mushrooms Canada so make sure you pop over there and check it out when it goes live.

Next week is Back To School, which means back to making tasty lunches for The Kid, TIFF coming up for me and the continued hope that summer is going to finally make an appearance at some point in September. For now, let's enjoy the sun and I am going to enjoy my weekend loaner dog, Stella.

Our loaner dog, Stella, is so sweet and lovely that I could almost see myself getting another

Oh, and don't forget that next weekend is Awestruck, a giant food truck extravaganza that always brings the yum. Stop eating Thursday to get yourself ready to gorge on Saturday in Mississauga's Celebration Square. As a thank you to everyone who has come out and supported this event, admission will be free this year so you can spend more of your hard earned cash on delicious treats.

If you can't make it out to Mississauga  next week, there is an Awestruck Pop Up event going on today in the parking lot at 495 Wellington Street West from noon til 8pm. Even if you can make it out next weekend, go today anyway.

Happy eating!

Facebook Share of The Week: 

Post by Carole Nelson Brown.

Tweet of the Week:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Beef Mushroom Burrito Means Back to School is Around the Corner

As part of my continuing experimentation with this whole blend and extend thing, I have discovered another recipe that is improved by the addition of mushrooms. The mushrooms release liquid that keeps the filling from drying out and it really does make your meat go a lot farther.  I managed to make 7 burritos using only 300 grams of beef and because this filling doesn't have to hold it's shape like a meatball, I think that you could even up the mushroom to beef ratio in this recipe without any trouble. I am going to try it half and half next and will report my findings. If anyone tries it first, please let me know how it went in the comments.

As August comes to a close, I start to panic about the lunch sitch with The Kid and I am suddenly obsessed with the need to stock the freezer with lunch items. It's like a foodie mom's non pregnant nesting or something and I can't stop until I know that I have enough food for at least three lunches/dinners a week for September. A sandwich or two a week won't kill him but September is not only back to school, it's also TIFF and that is my busiest time of the year so I have to worry about dinner too. I can't deal with stressing out about what they are going to eat while I am off babysitting movie stars, so I cook.

There is no real recipe for a burrito. You can do the whole thing with nothing but leftovers. Leftover meat or fish, leftover rice, some cheese, some leftover grilled veggies and maybe a splash of salsa, heat it up in the oven or on a frying pan and you've got yourself a burrito, right? This is a recipe for a meat filling that would also be great in a taco but for today, we are turning it into burritos that you are going to pop in the freezer.

The actual trimmings you put into the burrito are really up to you, as are the amounts. If you like them super cheesey, add more cheese. If you prefer a different kind of cheese, use it. If you want to make your own refried beans, knock yourself out. I don't like to add guacamole unless I am making them to eat right away because I don't like what happens to avocado when it's frozen and thawed but you might not care about that. You could add some leftover corn, chopped tomatoes or grilled peppers if you have those lying around. It's really up to you. Don't even start with me about the cilantro. It's not your fault, it's your brain that makes you think it tastes like soap so just leave it out and stop making that face.

Beef Mushroom Burrito

This recipe makes approx 7 or 8 good sized burritos

300g ground beef
100g button mushrooms
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 generous tbls cooking oil
3 tsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper
1/2 cup rotel (Canadians who can't find rotel can sub in one diced plum tomato with about 1/4 cup of salsa to make about 1/2 cup total)
1/2 cup chicken stock
handful of cilantro

to make the burritos:

10" flour tortillas
can refried beans
approx 2 1/2 cups of leftover rice (or cook fresh using 11/2 cup of dried basmati rice)
about 1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco (sub in mild feta if you can't find it)
about 1/2 cup sharp cheddar


Grind the mushrooms in the food processor. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium and saute the onion for a couple of minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Next, add the ground mushrooms and ground beef, smashing the meat down with a wooden spoon, until all of the pink is gone. I don't like big chunks of meat so I really squash it down with my spoon as I stir it while it's browning.

Next, throw in the chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper and stir well to coat the mushroom/meat with the spices. Stir in the rotel and the chicken stock, cover and turn the heat to med low. After five minutes, take the lid off, turn it back up to medium and let it simmer lightly for another five minutes. It should thicken up nicely. Stir in the cilantro and set aside to cool. (unless you are serving them immediately- in that case you don't have to cool it)

If your flour tortillas feel stiff, put them in the microwave for about 15 or 20 seconds to soften them up, one at a time as you go.

Lay your tortilla on your countertop or cutting board.
Smear some refried beans down the centre.
Lay a big spoonful of rice on top of the beans (the bean and rice layer helps to absorb the juices from the meat so your tortilla doesn't get soggy)
Next is a layer of beef/mushroom and finish that up with some queso fresco and cheddar.

now, fold the flap closest to you over the top and then sort of tuck it under the filling, pulling the filling towards you. Fold in the sides and continue to roll it up snugly, tucking bits in as you go. If you like you can spend some time watching youtube tutorials on how to do it but you will find that everyone has their own technique and they all seem to work so, just make sure the sides are tucked in so filling doesn't fall out and go to it. You will figure it out.

Once you have all of them made, you can freeze them or eat them right away. If you are eating them right away just skip the microwave part and heat them up in the frying pan for about 3 minutes per side until lightly brown and toasty.

To freeze, put them all on a baking sheet that fits in your freezer and flash freeze them for about an hour or so before putting them all a couple of freezer bags. When it's time to eat one, remove one from the freezer bag, pop it it into the microwave on a piece of paper towel and cook on high for  2 to 3 minutes. While it's defrosting/cooking in the microwave, warm up a pan over med heat and oil the pan using spray oil or just add a tiny slurp and wipe it around with a paper towel. Heat the burrito for a couple of minutes on top and bottom, starting with the seam side down,  until it's lightly browned to crisp it up a bit and remove any moisture that is left in the tortilla, making it limp.

As far as packing them for lunch goes, if the kid is happy to eat it cold, I wrap it in foil and put it in his lunch bag with a freezer pack but if he is planning to heat it up at school, I use parchment first so he can remove the foil and throw the parchment wrapped burrito in the microwave. If you don't trust your kid to not set the school on fire by forgetting to remove the foil, wrap it in parchment and throw it in a plastic storage baggie.
Nobody wants to be the mom of the kid who put the foil in the microwave.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Week in Yum August 16-22 A much needed break from eating out except for a little trip to Seven Lives

a week that begins with a magical wedding weekend in cottage country and ends with a trip to the market is a good week indeed

We attended our second wedding this summer on Saturday in cottage country and had a really great dinner while we were there. I am not going to lie, I don't usually expect much from any sort of wedding meal and I joked that I had checked off the beef option because I was holding out for a steak. Imagine my delight when I saw that the beef option was, indeed, a perfectly grilled, medium rare steak!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

20 Tips for Using a Smartphone Abroad

ipad photo shot in hipstamatic and edited in PS Express

Long, long ago in a faraway time I had to lug around an extra backpack just for my camera, my travel books, my walkman - SHUT UP I KNOW THAT DATES ME, reading material and the various gadgets I would need when I set out to see the world on my dinosaur.

Happily, those days are long gone because now I just do a bit of work getting my trusty iphone up to speed, throw that and my ipad mini (you don't even need the ipad but it's really handy for photo storage, magazines and photo editing for my old, bifocal wearing eyeballs) into my purse and I am out the door. Between those two items I have a library of reading material, a million travel books, currency converter, maps, gps, camera and darkroom, a phone, a computer, a travel agent, a translator and personal DJ.

thanks to my iphone, I can travel overseas for 10 days with only this fashionable child's carry on and a purse

Word of warning: This list is very iphonecentric because I use an iphone5 , I have an ipad mini and my desktop is a mac. We are an Apple family and have been an Apple family for well over a decade so I am not familiar with android or other platforms. I am pretty sure that every app that I use is available for other smartphones but because I have no personal experience with them, I am concentrating on what I know based on things I do myself. If you have great tips for using your smartphone abroad, please share them in the comments.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Week in Yum Aug 9-15 The County General, PanAm Food Fest, Patois and Sauvignon Bistro

brunch at The County Cocktail

Saturday was the first day of the Pan American Food Festival so I didn't want to eat anything heavy for breakfast or lunch. I had a night of eating tamales ahead of me and I had to keep my game stomach on so I passed on going to The Wren. I love the Wren, as you all know, but all of the dishes are pretty heavy and I generally make that my meal of the day when I brunch there so I talked the boys into trying someplace new.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Middle Eastern Inspired Meatball Wraps

Oh, it's all blend and extend all the time in this house right now. Last week, I finally got around to trying this method of adding ground mushrooms to ground beef in order to make your meat go farther and add a serving of vegetable to dishes while you are at it. The result were these Jamaican Patty Pops and I have to tell you, I was actually kind of amazed at how much the addition of the mushrooms worked as far as texture and and keeping the meat moist was concerned. I spent the rest of the week perfecting these Middle Eastern Inspired MeatBalls, which had been my runner up idea for the appetizer challenge until I got it right. These little meatballs are also great on their own and made a nice little dinner served with a dollop of tzatziki, a greek salad and a chunk of bread.


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