Buffet in a Box
By Nancy Eisman
From beautifully arranged, grown-up ingredients, to whimsical shapes and flavors especially for kids, the modern bento box lunch contains all the components of a complete and satisfying meal. Kind of like a 21st century plant-based version of a 1950’s Swanson’s TV dinner, with small amounts of something yummy in each compartment, only fresh not frozen, and as nutritious as you want to make it; bento is Japanese for “convenient meal served in a box”. Think of it as a personal buffet or salad bar, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, for all of us variety lovers.
First appearing in Japan in the mid-16th century, bento boxes have been prepared in home kitchens throughout the country, and are now also commercially produced and sold in convenience stores, railway stations, bento shops, and department stores. Served in everything from classically imprinted lacquer ware to colorful child-friendly plastic, variations of bento containers and meals are also popular in the Philippines, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and in India, where another compartmentalized container called a tingkat has carried millions of meals for centuries.
Bento box lunches may contain leftovers + something newly made + tasty morsels from a jar and/or whole or cut fresh fruits and vegetables. It should look as good as it tastes. Choose 4-6 “items”, with a variety of colors, textures, and flavors that balance protein, healthy fat and carbs, savory and sweet, with nutrition-rich vegetables, grains, and fruits.
As simple or complex as you want your bento box creation to be, play around with different combinations of foods to showcase your crafty creativity. Just make sure that wet and dry foods are kept separate and that everything is safe and delicious to eat at room temperature.
Of course you can go all-Asian with seasoned edamame, marinated Hawaiian-style tofu, flavored shiritake noodles, pickled bamboo shoots (just marinate in seasoned rice vinegar), leftover rice, and a Korean pear, or choose another ethnic cuisine to fill your compartments. My bento is a compilation of several products from Melissa’s Steamed Line, along with pre-cooked quinoa, seasonal and tender white asparagus tips, incredibly flavorful roasted veggie sweet peppers, with some mixing and matching, a splash of this and pinch of that, and fresh, juicy local pixie tangerines for a sweet and happy ending.
Here’s what’s in my box:
- Quinoa, with dried apricots, pine nuts, and a splash of seasoned rice vinegar (used leftover quinoa)
- Veggie Sweet Peppers, roasted in olive oil with salt & pepper (roasted the night before)
- Roasted Potatoes and Steamed Beets, diced with shallots in a horseradish vinaigrette
- Steamed Fava Beans and White Asparagus Tips in a hummus* with crackers
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with dried cranberries and pixie tangerine vinaigrette
- Fresh Pixie Tangerine
Fava Bean and White Asparagus Hummus
1 cup steamed fava beans
3/4 cup cooked white asparagus tips, chopped
1/3-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch white pepper
¼ cup fresh mint
¼ cup fresh cilantro
Process all the ingredients until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Enjoy with crackers, fresh veggies, on crostini, or as a sandwich spread.
My basic vinaigrette is 1 part oil and 1 part seasoned rice vinegar.
For horseradish vinaigrette add a ½ part creamed horseradish.
For the pixie tangerine vinaigrette, add a ½ part fresh pixie juice.