As Tina Turner might have sung, ‘What’s lunch got to do with it?’ The fact is that for most of us these days, during the week at least, lunch is an irrelevance. Not so much because we don’t eat it – we still generally manage to shovel some kind of calorific concoction into our mouths between the hours of noon and 2pm. No, the problem is that we scarcely notice we’re eating it. We devour our food on autopilot, barely savouring the taste and texture, as our brains continue to tick over the day’s workload.
To me, this is clearly so wrong. That’s why the message of this chapter is simple. If you want to improve the quality of your working day, then improve the quality of your daily lunch. For anyone who is any kind of a home cook, the best way to do that, without a doubt, is to pack a lunchbox.
The home-made packed lunch works on so many levels. It ensures that you always eat something you like for lunch, because you (or someone who loves you) have prepared it specially. It slots neatly into a thrifty approach to feeding the family, because more often than not it will largely be made up of (top-quality) leftovers. And it gives you more time to enjoy the break in the middle of your working day, as you don’t have to queue round the block for the same old sandwich. (I’ve got nothing against the sandwich, by the way. Many of the recipes in this chapter can be happily adapted to go between two slices of bread – and the resulting lunch will knock the product of your average city sandwich bar into a cocked bowler.)
Freed from the need to fight your co-workers for access to secondrate fast food, you can concentrate on finding somewhere nice – the park, the roof – to enjoy your own tiptop Tupperware tuck (or someone nice to enjoy it with). And it certainly saves you money. Even a relatively gourmet lunchbox (spiced chicken couscous; mackerel fillet with Puy lentils and pesto; beetroot hummus and goat’s cheese sandwich…) will cost you only a couple of quid if it’s put together at home. And for around £15 a week, I reckon you can lunch like a king. So, the notion of the portable working lunch is central to the recipes that follow. All but a very few are suited to making the journey with you to your place of work.
I feel passionately about lunchboxes because I make one several times a week for my wife, who goes out to work (and of course I feel passionately about her). Most of these recipes, or close variations thereof, have featured on her lunchtime menu at one time or another and so, of course, have many other wholesome combinations that I’ve never written down and probably never will.
However, there is a set of guiding principles that produces well balanced combinations – always delicious, if rarely ever quite the same twice. It initially involves scouring the fridge for significant leftovers. In our house, this search is most fruitful in the early part of the week, since weekend menus usually have leftovers for weekday lunches factored in.
The first tier of the scavenge is the search for protein: generally meat or fish, so there might be some shreds of cold roast chicken, lamb or pork. A little more exotically, there could be some leftovers from a more elaborate recipe – for example, sticky glazed spare ribs. Gosh, they’re good cold.
Next comes a scan for leftover starch and/or grains or pulses. Some cold new potatoes? Cooked rice or pasta? Lentils, perhaps? If this draws a blank, there’s still the option of cooking something quick from scratch while we have our breakfast. Puy lentils are ready after boiling for just 20 minutes or so, and cool very quickly if spread out on a plate. Couscous is practically instant. If time is tight and other options limited, you can always open a tin of chickpeas.
In summer, there may be time to pick a few handfuls of French beans from the garden and fling them into a pan of simmering water for 5 minutes, or wash and pack a little bunch of baby carrots or crisp radishes, or simply throw in a handful of cheery cherry tomatoes…
Having two or three primary ingredients in hand, it’s time for a little creative thought. Nothing too taxing, you understand, you’re just asking yourself the question, ‘What can I add now to make this really nice?’ A scattering of capers or cornichons, a little crumbled goat’s cheese or good old grated Cheddar? Some seeds/nuts/dried fruit, perhaps? And it’s always worth keeping some dukka handy – it’s a lunchbox winner.
The final touch is usually some kind of dressing. It might just be a glug of good oil and a squeeze of lemon, or a thoroughly shaken and emulsified mustardy vinaigrette. It could be a blob of mayonnaise from a jar – and you might want to pimp that with some lemon juice, a smidgeon of crushed garlic and a good blob of mustard. Or you might want to go to another level of premeditation with one of the fresh pestos. These will keep for several days, and will instantly transform an otherwise bland combo of leftover meat/fish and grains/pulses into a really excellent lunch.
If you have the facilities to heat food at work, a whole separate raft of options opens up. Marie has a microwave at work and, unlike me, she’s not afraid to use it. So if there’s some leftover stew and some leftover mash, or the remains of a big, hearty soup (you’ll find several of these in the Thrifty Meat chapter), then the job of sorting the lunchbox is done before it’s begun. Sometimes a little customising is in order. If there’s stew but no mash, or a soup that’s full of lively veg but light on substance, some quickly cooked couscous, rice or pasta, or tinned pulses, can be incorporated. If you can organise some plain hot pasta at work, by way of microwave, kettle or conventional hob, then your lovingly home-made pesto can reassert itself in a more conventional role, simply tossed with a mound of hot buttered spaghetti (or noodles).
Even if there are no leftovers at all, a lovely lunchbox can still be composed from scratch if you have some reasonable resources to draw on. In the summer, the combination of store-cupboard plus the vegetable garden (or veg box), with perhaps some good cheese standing by, should provide the makings of any number of substantial and really quite sophisticated salads. That’s where the seasonal slaws are coming from. If you have the foresight/ organisational skills to do something about your lunch the evening before, a whole load of lovely salads that use cooked vegetables as a main ingredient can then enter the fray. The two most frequently occurring examples in our kitchen are beetroot and squash. If ever we’re cooking (usually roasting) either vegetable as a side dish, we’ll try to cook enough for a lunchbox outing in the days ahead.
You’ll have grasped by now that cooking more of something in order to enjoy the leftovers as lunch pickings is second nature in my kitchen, and pretty fundamental to my family’s approach to eating. So much so that sometimes we actually cook something solely in order to be able to use it as leftovers. That sounds a bit batty, I know, but having a bowl of cooked Puy lentils or couscous standing by in the fridge means you always have a quick lunch (or indeed a quick supper, come to that) in waiting. Even if all you mix it with is a few scraps of leftover roast lamb and a dab of that oh-so-useful pesto.
Clearly these guiding principles of lunchbox assembly need not always lead, literally, to a lunch in a box. My own weekday working lunch is similar to, but different from, Marie’s. If I’m working from home, I usually raid the fridge/store-cupboard/garden in much the same way as I do for her lunchbox – only I don’t have to be quite so disciplined (by which I mean tidy), as there’s no need to pack it all away in a neat, portable parcel. I’m more likely to spread out the bounty of my raiding party on the kitchen table and pick and mix to my heart’s content.
In fact, it’s an extension of this process that very often gives us our most enjoyable family lunches at weekends. I’m talking about a generous smorgasbord of leftovers (cold cuts of meat or fish, often tossed with dressed pulses), just-pickeds (salad and/or crudités from the garden or greengrocer’s), ready-to-eats (good home-made or locally made ham, pâté or salami) and one or two quick and easy things that have been knocked up specially. The latter might be one of my favourite hummi, a big bowl of one of the slaws or, when we’ve got plenty of eggs, a large frittata.
I am more than happy to extend this lovely way of eating to accommodate even quite large numbers of guests – especially in summer, when most lunches will effectively be picnics at the table, either inside or out. Besides the recipes in this chapter, many of the ones in the Vegetables Galore chapter fit perfectly into this scheme.
Sitting down for a more traditional Sunday lunch of big roast, big stew or big baked fish, plus trimmings and more or less traditional accompanying vegetables, isn’t something we do every weekend. But when we do, then no sooner is my plate clean than I’m eyeing up what’s left of the meal, imagining the myriad ways in which they might enhance the lunches (and suppers) of the coming week.