Sturdy enough to withstand transit, wholesome and filling enough to help you through the afternoon, you might imagine a salad based on hearty, earthy wholegrains, would make perfect sense in your lunchbox. Ideal. Invincible, even. Sadly, to use a much-abused cliché, not all are created equal. Freshly cooked and quickly dressed? Delicious. Plump grains, bearing even the faintest trace of warmth, tossed in grass-green oil and something sharp, something fragrant, are far more forgiving dressed now than later, stone cold. But that very same salad fridge-cold two days later? Awful. Or so I thought.
Lunch, or more to the point, the question of what to pack for lunch, has always puzzled me. Bringing your own is clearly the clever person’s cash and time-saving solution, but exactly what to bring becomes less obvious once you move beyond soggy sandwiches and leftovers. But leftovers, however obvious they seem, are a very good place to begin.
Toss leftover rice, pilaf or otherwise, with generous spoonfuls of thick plain yoghurt, a squeeze of lemon, salt, crushed garlic and lots of dill. Halve a cucumber lengthways, scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon and slice it thinly crossways. Toss these quarter moons in next. In a separate container, pack some sturdy lettuce leaves, washed and carefully dried, to wrap around spoonfuls of creamy, herby rice. This, I find, stops you eating in front of the computer screen – while not impossible, it is rather difficult to check emails when both hands are actively, pleasurably, engaged.
I now happily roast extra vegetables just so they can be doused in this unbelievably good dressing. Tumbled with handfuls of roughly chopped parsley and/or coriander it’s easy and very, very do-able before you head out. Whip up a double batch over a morning coffee, pour into a clean jar and take it with you for the week. Carrot and celery sticks, those dreaded dieting staples, are lovely dipped or drizzled this way. Tinned dolmades (drained and splashed with both olive oil and balsamic vinegar) and pre-made falafels are good to have on hand. Serve with a tub of hummus or the roughly forked flesh of a ripe avocado. Tinned staples in fact make great salads: Sophie has a wealth of ideas and Stephanie’s own take on one of my earlier suggestions is grand – peruse the comments section while you’re there for a bunch of possibilities well worth exploring.
And then there are these two beautiful wholegrain salads. They’ll need to be made ahead, a quiet Sunday afternoon immediately springs to this mind, but both travel well and last beyond the single lunch. Not wanting to sound like a bore, I think it worth a reminder here to remove your lunch from the fridge about thirty minutes before you plan to eat – fridge-cold anything does neither the digestive system nor tastebuds any particular favours.
Karen Martini’s brown rice salad – 3-4 lunch-sized servings
Karen Martini’s fabulous, nutty salad in her latest offering Cooking at Home is so good it’s worth doubling. I’ve adapted the recipe to suit my needs, but the beautiful flavours are essentially hers. It just seems to improve with age. Frankly, we can’t stop eating it around here...
¾ cup of brown rice (stubby Japanese grains, for preference)
1½ cups of water
½ cup of currants
½ cup of red wine vinegar
½ cup of pine nuts
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 onions, sliced into thin half moons
Generous pinch each of sea salt, cinnamon and allspice
1 bunch of parsley leaves, roughly chopped
½ bunch of mint leaves
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
Get the rice on first. Bring the rice and water to a boil in a small, heavy-based saucepan. Lower the heat right down, clamp the lid on tightly and leave, untouched, for 45 minutes. Remove from the heat, lid still on, and rest while you get on with the recipe.
In another small saucepan, bring the currants and vinegar to a boil. Simmer for 3-5 minutes, until the fruit is plump and there is just a little liquid left at the bottom of the saucepan.
Toast the pine nuts until golden in a dry frying pan. Remove to a plate to cool, place the frying pan back on the heat and pour in the oil. Add the onions, salt and spices and cook over a low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring from time to time. You want golden threads.
Toss everything together over and over while the rice and onions are still warm. Keeps for up to three days.
Beetroot and quinoa salad – 3-4 lunch-sized servings
Ah, the Wonder Grain. High in protein and easily digestible, quinoa is also rich in minerals. While most wholegrains will take an hour, often longer, to reach tender, toothsome perfection, quinoa is a speedy twenty-minute affair. Think tabbouleh and you’re halfway to understanding both its texture and functionality. Adapted from Rebecca Wood’s Splendid Grain, this is very a pretty shade of pink.
2 cups (500ml) of stock (cube, especially Marigold, is fine)
1 small beetroot, peeled and very finely diced
1 cup of quinoa
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of 1 small lemon
1 bunch of chives, snipped with scissors
1 bunch of parsley leaves, chopped
Large handful of black olives, pitted and chopped
A few anchovies (optional), chopped
Thick, plain yoghurt or sour cream
Large soft lettuce leaves, washed and carefully dried (optional)
Bring the stock to a boil, drop in the beetroot, quinoa, oil and half a teaspoon of salt, followed by the zest and juice. Bring back to the boil, lower the heat right down, clamp the lid on tightly and leave, untouched, for 15 minutes. Stand, still covered, for a further 3 minutes.
Lift the lid and fork through half of the herbs, the olives and anchovies (if using). Cool completely, and add the rest of the herbs. Pack the yoghurt and lettuce in two separate containers. To serve, wrap spoonfuls of the quinoa in the leaves, dolloped with a little yoghurt or cream as you go. Just as good without the lettuce, but I quite like this ritual. Keeps for up to two days.
How do you ‘do’ lunch?