So, last week didn’t go all that well on this front. I managed to pack a couple of bento, and those were big helps, and I managed to stay home and eat regularly another day or two, but overall it wasn’t a big success, and the weekend was terrible. This week so far has not been so hot, either.

However, that just means I need to focus on lunch some more. Stick with the meditative principle. I’ve mostly kept doing well by breakfast, with frozen waffles, shakes, and stops at our favorite coffee-house-with-drivethrough, where they make tasty breakfast sandwiches to order, and pretty decent coffee to boot (although I have to be careful about my caffein intake).

So, bento. Bento just means a boxed lunch in Japanese. The boxes these lunches are packed in are also called bento. And there are some really nifty bento boxes out there. I have one that looks like a Japanese doll called a kokeshi, one that looks like a Lego brick, several with Studio Ghibli characters, ones shaped like frogs, monkeys, peaches, cherry blossoms, all kinds of things. I’ve got a couple of the multi-tiered metal tiffins, which are like bento, but are from India. I have this huge amount of bento gear — little cups and mayonnaise containers and soy sauce bottles and food picks and just all kinds of things, and I have barely touched them in years, because I worked in a restaurant and could have somebody make me whatever I wanted. So now I’m trying to get back into it.

In Japan, the basic ratio for bento is 3:2:1 — three parts carbohydrates (usually rice, but it could be whatever), two parts vegetables, one part protein. I don’t necessarily try to adhere to that, but it’s a nice guideline, and generally works well for me if I can pull it off.

I like bento because they’re fun to assemble, tasty, convenient, and the portions aren’t huge, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by them. Still, I often don’t finish my bento, and I’ve had to be ok with that.

This week’s bento were: Rice with umeboshi, garlicky curried chickpea fritters (recipe below), and frozen chopped spinach dressed with soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and black and white sesame seeds; and onigiri (rice balls), one with bonito flakes and soy sauce and the other with half an umeboshi, roasted carrots, and leftover green curry duck.

The thing about bento is that you can put lots and lots and lots of effort into it, or very little. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, and to go to as much of that effort as possible in advance, because I really hate mornings. So I’ll be making rice for lunch or dinner, and I’ll make an extra cup and leave it in the rice cooker on the keep-warm setting until I’ve finished eating, and then I’ll make three or four onigiri (rice balls) and freeze them (just wrap each one in plastic wrap as you finish it and pop them in the freezer). I’ll take a half an hour and make salted salmon or soboro, and throw that in the fridge or freezer. Or I’ll take a while longer and make (or, Hestia protect me from myself, invent) something like the chickpea fritters below, and fridge or freeze those, too. Then I’ve got all kinds of things ready to just shove in a box in the morning, and go. I’ve also got a fancy fuzzy-logic rice robot, so I can wash some rice the night before and leave it in the cooker on a timer, and I’ll have rice hot and fresh and ready when I get up, and I can pack that. Plus, you know, leftovers are handy, and so are ready-made things like fishcakes and fried tofu chunks. (The onigiri can be pulled out of the freezer, defrosted and then heated until hot through in the microwave, and then thrown in a box still in the wrapper. The salty fillings help keep them safe to eat until lunchtime. Just don’t try to thaw them in the box, they come out nasty.)

So I’ll get up and have to run my sweetie to work and then run errands or go to appointments all day, and I’ll stop and make my shake, and while I’m drinking it, I’ll throw whatever’s handy into a bento box. Or I’ll pack everything but the rice the night before, and have the rice ready in the morning, and throw that in and go. If I’m feeling really super ambitious, I might heat something up or even cook it — those carrots were cut into sticks, tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted for 10 minutes in my handy-dandy toasted oven on 450F — in the morning, but I try not to count on my ability to do that. (And, of course, not all bento have to involve rice. I just like it. Sometimes I’ll have made a pasta dish the night before, and just throw that in, but I do require my carbs, and rice is both traditional to bento and pleasant to me.)

But I’m much more likely to eat my lunch if it’s already made, and packed in an adorable container. Yay! So bento work well for me . . . as long as I actually make them.

Right! On to the recipes!

Garlicky Curried Chickpea Fritters:

I had a crockpot full of chickpeas, so I thought I’d use those for a base for some kind of mini-patty thing to throw in a bento. And from that started a four-hour culinary odyssy of trial and error and adding stuff and re-processing stuff and adding more stuff and frying stuff and going to get Kate because I’d lost all perspective and needed someone else to taste them and adding things and frying some more, that ended up with the following reasonably tasty things. Keep in mind, this is not an actual recipe, it’s more like a better-organized accounting of what I ended up making, inspired by falafel and Maki’s green pea mini-burger.

This batch of base was enormous and would probably have ended up making about 30 little fritters. I stopped making them after a while, though. You may want to halve the recipe or something.

Garlicky curried chickpea fritters

2 1/4c cooked chickpeas
2T garlic chives
half a large onion
3 cloves garlic
1/4c flour
3/4c flaxseed meal
2T curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1/2c cooked quinoa
mixed black and white poppy seeds, toasted, maybe a quarter cup
peanut or corn oil and toasted sesame oil for frying (reminder: sesame oil has a low smoke point)
(next time, I want to add dried onion or shallot flakes to add to sesame seeds)

Process everything but the quinoa and sesame seeds until it’s a thick paste. Stop to scrape down the sides a few times. Put it in a separate bowl and fold in the quinoa. Let sit for about 20 minutes, to thicken. It should be thick enough to roll into sticky balls. If not, add more flaxseed meal.

Scoop out heaping tablespoons of paste, roll them into balls, flatten slightly, and dip into sesame seeds on both side. Gently lay into 1/4″ of hot oil in a skillet (4 parts peanut or corn to 1 part sesame). Fry until a deep crispy brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

I want to drip them in sri racha (aka red rooster sauce, aka hot cock sauce), or in some kind of tangy yogurt sauce, maybe with lemon and/or sumac (because I have sumac, and it’s tart).

This is pretty much the beta version of the things. If you decide to play with it, let me know what you do and how it works, please.

If you don’t have a food processor, you can mash the chickpeas by hand, but do it before you add the flax seed meal. The flour could be replaced with rice flour or probably even left out entirely, but I put it in so it’s in the recipe.

These can be refrigerated for a couple of days, or frozen for a couple of weeks. Defrost in the microwave, but reheat in a frying pan or hot toaster oven (I love my toasted oven; have I mentioned that? So handy!), something that will make the outside crispy again.

Oh, you might possibly want instructions on cooking chickpeas or quinoa;

Take some dried chickpeas and soak them overnight. Dump that water off, just cover them with some more, add salt, and cook all day in a crock pot, until they’re tender.

Take some quinoa and twice as much water or broth or any tasty liquid, plus salt. Put it in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer 10 minutes, remove from heat, cover tightly, and let sit for 20-30 minutes, or until it’s soaked up most of the liquid.

Bonus not-recipe! Mad Gastronomer’s Pork Soboro!

Heat up a little olive oil with a dash of toasted sesame oil, gild two cloves of coarsely crushed garlic, and throw in half a cup or so of finely sliced shitakes. Brown those, add a pound of ground pork. Mash six or eight tablespoons of miso paste (red, white, or, as I did, a mix of the two) into a bit of mirin and soy sauce, and some hot water. Mix that in with the meat, break the pork up fine with a whisk, brown it well. Check taste, add more miso mix until it tastes a bit too strong on its own. Makes 2-4 servings of yummy rice topping.

Note: You may have noticed that most of my links in this piece are from Just Bento or Just Hungry. This is because Maki, who writes them both, is awesome, and has awesome advice and recipes. If you want to start making bento, go read her stuff. She also writes a lot about Japanese food and culture, and French food and culture. (She’s Japanese-born, has spent a lot of time in the US, and currently lives in France.)