Sometimes, the reasoning behind trading sandwiches in the school lunchroom hits too close to home.
How many workdays can you eat the same boring lunch? Sure, cold cuts on white bread is easy, but is "easy" what you want for lunch every day? And that frozen tray you march to the microwave. Whether it is "lean" or not can be debated, but it really isn't anything resembling "cuisine."
Here are some tips to incorporate when filling your brown bag. Follow them, and you won't trade your sandwich with anyone.
VARY YOUR TEXTURES. The average lunch-bag sandwich is soft bread with soft meat and cheese. Mix it up. Make some elements of the sandwich crunch. Add a crisp vegetable. Lettuce is classic, or try something new, like shredded jicama. Even something as simple as toasting the bread or melting the cheese will add a texture to the sandwich and make it a little more interesting.
VARY YOUR TEMPERATURES. Hot and cold. You should have both on a sandwich. Contrast makes food more interesting. When all the ingredients have come to the same temperature, the palate gets bored. Hot meat on warm bread with crisp vegetables. It gives you something to think about, and makes it more worthwhile to stop concentrating on email.
BUILD IT AT WORK. Varying the textures and temperatures will require a little last-minute execution, because the longer a sandwich sits assembled, the more homogenous they will become. Pack the parts of the sandwich and put them together just before you eat, after heating the hot elements. And if you have to assemble the sandwich before work, at least keep the condiments separate until the last minute.
REPURPOSE LEFTOVERS. The recipe here calls for steak. It can be leftover from a trip to a restaurant, or make an extra one on Sunday afternoon to use over a couple of days during the week. Or if you have a pot roast for dinner one night, make more than you need, then shred the meat and toss it with barbecue sauce for lunch.
SLICE MEAT THIN. Big chunks of meat are too much work to bite. Keep the meat filling in small pieces. And if using a tougher cut, slice it against the grain.
GET INTERESTING BREAD. At its most elemental, bread is flour, yeast, salt and water. Get bread that has very few ingredients beyond those and it will taste better. You'll have to buy it more often, but it's worth it. Sourdough, ciabbata, baguettes. If you make exactly the same sandwich you always make, but put it on quality bread, your sandwich will be better.
ADD COMPLEX BRIGHTNESS. Acidity gets the attention of your taste buds, which is why we like things like mustard, pickles and even ketchup. Regular yellow mustard can be brash without being interesting. Try one that brings more to the party. A dijon brings heat, honey mustard brings sweetness, whole grain brings texture. Pickles come in many varieties, too, and try other vegetables pickled like fennel or onions.
A SIDE OF CREATIVITY. A bag of chips? Really? Put together a salad on Sunday night, and you can have it all week. Then try a different one the next week. Bonus: you control the salt content.
Personalize your lunch
With those tips in mind, here are recipes for a different lunch this week. Any item can be substituted. Replace the steak with leftover pork. Pickle fennel instead of onions. Use your favorite cheese. Change the bread. Add hot sauce to the salad. Make it yours.
STEAK SANDWICH ON CIABATTA WITH PICKLED RED ONIONS AND BLUE CHEESE
1/2 cup mild vinegar, like apple cider or rice wine
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 medium red onion, sliced very thin
1 sandwich-sized ciabatta roll, sliced
6 ounces of steak, cooked your favorite way (leftovers are fine), sliced thin
2 ounces blue cheese crumbles
Mix vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Put onion slices in a zip-top bag and cover with vinegar mixture. Let stand at least one hour. You'll only need a little bit of onion for the sandwich, but the rest will last more than a week in the refrigerator.
If you have a toaster oven at work, toast the ciabatta. Reheat the steak in the microwave, about 20 seconds (any more than 20 seconds, and the microwave will start to cook the meat, instead of just heating it).
Add a thin layer of onion to the bottom of the roll. Top with meat. Sprinkle the cheese on top.
Makes one sandwich, with pickled red onions left over.
FENNEL APPLE SALAD
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup apple, cut in about 1/4-inch dice (about one medium apple)
1 cup fennel, cut in about 1/4-inch dice (about half a normal-sized bulb)
1 tablespoon fennel fronds
Whisk vinegar, oil, mustard, honey and salt in a bowl. Add apple and toss to coat. Do this as soon as possible after cutting apple to avoid browning. Add fennel and fronds and toss again.
Makes about 6 servings as a side dish.
-- Jim Webster