Wednesday, February 22, 2012


It's the Manbearpig!

He's seriously sweet, and one of the best feelings is watching him gobble up something healthy I made for him. After dinner tonight, he wanted some Nori (dried, seasoned seaweed) for a snack. I came back, and he was trying to make the big sheet into a mustache, so I helped him out a tad.

Nori is one of those amazing foods that takes a little getting used to. Growing up with a Japanese grandmother, I've loved the green sheets forever. Usually, I'll just have a bowl of rice and a few of these and I'm good. It has a spinach-like taste with a bit of salt and soy sauce. The texture can range from the brittle dry sheets to the rubbery fresh stuff when it's moist. Mostly, it's used almost like a seasoning. Shredded over soba noodles and in Tamagoyaki, or eaten on its own as a treat. Some people don't like seaweed, but stick with it and you'll find it's the perfect complement to everyday eggs and grains. Nori is particularly amazing when you wrap it around Onigiri, rice balls. Tomorrow's bento is going to be an assortment of rice balls, so I'll post that later. Just thought the Manbearpig was worth a giggle.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Catching Up

Sorry about not catching up in the last couple of days. Had a test in ASL, so most of the week was spent studying. It's an interesting and fun language to learn, but if you're not practicing daily, it's easy to lose track of the signs.

That said, I'm on the net book, so I can't get my photos on here. I'll try to edit those in soon. As a peace offering, here's a lovely recipe inspired by The blogger on that site inspired me to get into the mini meals, and she has a phenomenal book out. If I forget to list one of her recipes, I'll shove as many customers as I can through her door to grab a copy of The Just Bento Cookbook. It's a great inspiration. On her site, she showed a few pictures of some store bought sandwiches called Katsu Sando, and the Bobbers liked the idea, so I made my own version below.

Katsu Sando
This is a crispy, breadcrumb-coated pork cutlet in sandwich form. The usual form is called Tonkatsu and is popular in a lot of Japanese restaurants. This version is convenient. :3 I also include the popular Katsu sauce if you don't have it in the grocery store.

1 pork cutlet thinly sliced and boneless
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
2 tbs water
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs or regular
Canola oil

1. Pour the canola oil in a deep pan until the oil covers 1" of the base and heat on medium high.
2. Wrap the cutlet in plastic wrap and flatten with a rolling pin, pounding until the piece is 1/4" thick.
3. Mix the flour, salt and pepper, and paprika and dredge the cutlet in the flour.
4. Whisk the egg and water and coat the cutlet in the egg mixture.
5. Press the cutlet into the Panko crumbs until it is well coated.
6. Cook in the heated oil, flipping once, for 6 minutes.
7. Remove cutlet to paper towel-lined plate and pat dry the excess oil.

Katsu Sauce: (This is amazing with chicken nuggets, too.)
2 tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 tbs ketchup
1/4 tsp soy sauce
dash of pepper to taste

1. Mix all the sauce ingredients together and taste.

When both the sauce and the Tonkatsu are ready, prepare your bread and some lettuce. (Traditionally, shredded cabbage is used instead of lettuce, but we've had too much of it lately.) Line the lettuce on one side of the sandwich and drizzle the Katsu sauce and a dab of mayonnaise. (In one of my rare cases, I prefer mayonnaise with the preservatives if I'm not going to have access to a fridge, or you could abstain altogether. If a recipe does call for mayo, though, make sure you can keep the dish cool or go with the preservatives. It's always better safe than sorry.) Top with the cutlet and bread, slice and serve.

I don't usually like pork at all. We'll maybe have it once or twice a year. Tonkatsu, though, wins me over because it's just such a quintessential Japanese treat. The pork is cheap, too, so I froze the rest of the cutlets to use in later Bentos. You can have this donburi-style, which means on rice with veggies, or even with mashed potatoes. The sandwich is a great midday pick-me-up, though, and it's convenient. Try this with chicken or fish sometime.

 Here's one of Bob's lunches: a chili cheese omelet. He said it was yummy, and all it took was a few leftovers in the fridge.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine's Bento

Valentine's Day is tomorrow in case you don't own a calendar. I tend to like this holiday as an excuse to dote on Bobbers, but on the receiving end, I'm usually oblivious to it. This year, though, Bob got me my really nice Android phone, and I haven't been able to stop playing with it. Good score.

Last year, I made him a steamed lobster tail bento. It's not something I would recommend unless you have access to a refrigerator and a microwave to keep it safe. Seafood is usually a big no-no when it comes to bentos, but there are a few safe recipes. Tomorrow's is a great example.

This year, I made a crab meat and cabbage slaw, inari zushi pockets, and a hard-boiled egg. Bob got another lobster this year...kind of. This little guy is made of roma tomatoes, red bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese. I sat him on a bed of salad and splashed some balsamic vinegar dressing over him. I recommend packaging dressings for salad separately because it can really make your lettuce soggy and unappetizing, but the lobster is the feature here, and soaking in a little dressing will make him tasty tomorrow.

The crab salad is one of those safe recipes for bentos. I used imitation crab, but you can also use canned crab. Both of these won't spoil as quickly as fresh crab meat. Just keep in mind that you might want to half the sugar if you use imitation as the meat is really sweet.

Crab and Cabbage Slaw: (makes 4 servings)

2 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded canned or imitation crab
2 tsp salt
2 tbs rice vinegar
1-2 tsp sugar
ground pepper and black sesame seeds to taste

1. Massage the salt into the cabbage until it wilts and pat dry with a paper towel.
2. Add the vinegar and sugar, mixing vigorously.
3. Mix in the crab meat and sprinkle with pepper.
4. Serve with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

The inari pockets you can get canned at a grocery store or Asian market. If you can't find them there, try online. They're one of the few items that you can order fairly cheap, and they last a little while. Just drain the can and blot out the pockets. I stuffed these with sushi rice (rice with a little vinegar, sugar, and salt), but you can fill them with rice and other treats like tuna, salmon, furikake, egg soboro, veggies, etc.

Happy V-Day!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tapping the Pantry

Thursday's meal was a tuna, egg, and spinach soboro. Soboro is kind of like a casserole. You take some basic flavors, mince them, and serve on top of rice. It's very yummy, satisfying, and you can make it quickly with pretty much anything you have on hand.

I think I'll update every other day instead of each day. School really took its toll this week, and I'm not even into midterms and finals. The classes are fun, I just get busy quickly.

Today's topic is the pantry. We keep a lot of potential meals in there but forget about them. How often do you dread taking something new home because you're out of space? Well, something's taking up the space in there, right? Soboro is a perfect way to thin out the extra tuna, chicken or corn cans in there, and you'll end up with a tasty mix.

I had some tuna in there this week, so I pulled out the can, popped it open and threw it in the skillet. All it took was a tablespoon of soy sauce, some green onions that I keep chopped in the freezer, and a little ground ginger. The middle flavor is a single egg soboro. The recipe is almost identical to the Tamagoyaki feature but minus the vinegar and reduced to a third of the portions. Scramble the egg mixture and mince with a fork while it cooks to get the little granules you see above. The sweet egg and slightly salty fish mix wonderfully in the rice. Finally, the spinach was a bit of the frozen kind that I keep as a side. I cooked it in the microwave with two tablespoons of water and added a little dash of soy sauce and a half clove of minced garlic, spooning the rest of the soy water over the rice bed to keep it moist.

It really is that easy, and clean up was a breeze. You can exchange the tuna for canned chicken, chicken breast (as long as you mince it finely), ground beef, ground turkey, or anything really. I've seen recipes that used canned or fresh green beans, corn, and julienne carrots. Just make sure that the pieces are minced fine so you can work them through the rice and mix the flavors. Soboro can also use noodles instead of rice, if you want a change of pace and to get rid of the extra noodles.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bento Shuffle

Sorry about missing an update the other day. I tried with my Android, but because I didn't have good reception on campus, I couldn't get the photos in. Oh well.

Yesterday's was a black bean burger, mozarella cheese, onigiri, and new potato fries box. It's really simple food, but what I wanted to show was how one of these boxes fair after a day of running around before you tuck in at noon. I've been taking the bus to the campus on Tuesdays to save a little driving for the hubby, so I'll admit that I kind of slide around and abuse the boxes a little more than someone gingerly carting theirs to and fro. That's alright, though. A well-packed box will have minimal damage. I used the extra spaces in the box to fill it out with broccoli. I can't tell you how I've converted to the little trees through Bentos; they are amazingly versatile and healthy. By lunch, mine went from the above to this:

Not horrible, but it's not perfect like the first, and you can tell the potatoes went soggy. Admittedly, I made this the night before, so the fridge can take a toll on the food. You can see why picking like flavors is a must, too. Even tightly packed, you're going to have them sliding into each other, so they better taste good together. The biggest thing I should have paid attention to was this:

That's condensation on the lid. I didn't pay it much mind the night before because this was going into the fridge for the night, but if you're making your box fresh, the moisture will really sabotage your food. As an added caution, moisture allows bacteria to grow at the warm temperature of the box, so by noon, you could have something awful-looking and dangerous on your hands. Make sure to give yourself time to cool the box before you close it, and you'll get something more like the first photo. Popping the box in the freezer for a few minutes will help draw out the moisture, but don't leave it too long in there. Rice gets dry really quickly. For best results, let your box sit out on the counter for about twenty minutes while you finish your morning ritual.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lesson One: What You Need and Rolled Omelets

 That's a box I made for my sister's birthday last year. Salt Salmon, Onigiri rice ball, inari zushi, broccoli and a grape tomato. You can't get simpler with comfort food like this.

So, the main aim of this blog is to start being consistent with making the mini-meals, but I also like to teach a little. (It's the bossy side of me.) I'll be peppering the weeks with tutorials like this one, but I'm not set on a specific day of the week for the lessons. They will just pop up when they do. That said, I'm not pretending this is the definitive guide to bentos. There are tons of sites with interesting pictures and lessons. I'm just showcasing easy methods for items that seem intimidating for a new cook or someone new to Japanese home cooking. Today's will be a feature of getting started in the kitchen and one of the bento staples: the rolled omelet.

A lot of sites are loaded with tasty items that are common Japanese fare, but living in the States in the middle of Nevada, I have a hard time finding half of the "staples." There are a lot of Asian supermarkets that offer some of the seasonings, but you have to know your way around a wok to use them right. Below is a photo of every Japanese item I can come by in a normal grocery store here.

It's not much, but as I grew comfortable with cooking, it made more sense to keep easy staples like these than extensive collections of items that I may use once or twice. I like umeboshi plums, but for someone who doesn't know where to find them, a splash of lemon juice and ginger have the exact same preservation qualities and won't break the bank. In the photo: Calrose rice, white sesame seeds, soy sauce, rice vinegar, black sesame seeds, seaweed (nori), Memmi sauce (a soup base), Inari pockets, and a packet of green tea. These days, we have online access to a lot of foods and spices, but usually, these are expensive and you have to pay shipping. I hear that there are a few decent Asian grocery stores in town, so those might be future field trips. ^.-

Cookware is sort of the same. I have a few fancy cutters, but I rarely cart them out. You can get away with nothing more than a good fruit-paring knife. Here are my tools below.

I have two boxes because I recently started going to school on campus, so the snap-on lid and carry tote were a must, but I've pointed out that tupperware makes just as attractive of a bento box. In all honesty, the most useful item that you might not find is that little plastic colander in the back (light blue). I don't know where my Obaasan (grandmother) got it, but it's excellent for cleaning the rice and veggies. You can make do with a regular colander and bowl, but I love that little thing irrationally.

So, that's pretty much all you need to have a stocked bento kitchen. Not too bad, but before you run out to buy everything, think over some key ideas: What are you making, and what do you need? Usually, it's fun to stock up on stuff, but some of my cutters and the two egg presses (they shape hard boiled eggs into a car or fish) are rarely used. They're fun sometimes things, but using them all the time would wear me down quickly.

 Today's box for Bob had to be packed in mine. He left his again.

Teriyaki salmon, Tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), sliced red bell peppers, broccoli and soy bean stir fry, and white rice.

Rolled Omelet or Tamagoyaki is a classic bento food. The egg mixture is slightly sweet and makes for a great added protein without a lot of fat. You'll be wanting to throw this into almost any box, and even alone on a bed of rice, it's a good meal.

3 eggs
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tbs soy sauce
1/2 tbs rice vinegar
*Optional Add: Green onions, diced bell peppers, Furikake, salmon flakes, shredded cabbage (Mine has green onions today)
1. Beat the ingredients together until the egg mixture is bright yellow but not bubbly.
2. Heat frying pan on medium high and lightly coat with oil, mopping up excess with a paper towel. Reserve the paper towel and oil to wipe between layers.

3. Pour 1/4 egg mixture into the pan and allow to bubble before rolling with spatula.
4. Wipe down pan with paper towel and oil, cleaning the bits.

5. Pour a thin layer of the egg mixture and wait for a thin skin to form over the top or the mixture to bubble.
6. Very carefully, roll the mass of the first layer through the new, lifting gently and allowing the layer to cook to the mass before completing the roll.

7. Repeat steps 4-6 until the egg mixture is rolled up. Remove to a plate to cool.
There you go. Tamagoyaki. Just slice it and serve. Usually, you need a rectangular pan for tamagoyaki, but you can get away with a regular pan with practice. Try it out today. :3

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Welcome to Bento Buddy!

Hi and welcome to my first bento blog.

To begin with, I'll introduce myself. I'm a college student working toward an Associate of Arts right now, but I definitely plan to extend my education into nursing and eventually into Psychology. My husband works at Costco to keep us happy, so packing his lunches are a fun way to show gratitude while I polish off the degree. Our son, Danny, is a funny little guy with a few quirks. He has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and he is an incredibly loving little guy eager to try new things.

I started making bentos as a way to cut food costs. The initial investments seem surprising, but after even just a few meals, you'll start to see the value. Most of all, I try to aim for items that are in season or available for cheap. I also make bentos on days that I'm at home because eating the smaller meal and looking forward to it cuts down the snacking. I've lost about twenty pounds since I started doing this last year, and more importantly, my food choices have shifted to healthier options. I hope to shed more this year by being more consistent. (Moving and balancing a busy school schedule sabotaged the efforts last year, but overall, I was still enjoying the shift.)

I'll be offering recipes and ideas for packing the mini meals, but remember that these can be altered to fit your dietary needs. A general rule of thumb for traditional bentos is: 1/3-1/2 carbohydrates (such as rice or other grains), 1/4 protein, and 1/4+ vegetables. Most bento boxes that you can find on are measured in mL. As long as you're packing the boxes with those specifications, you'll be taking in as many calories as mLs, so choose a box that will accommodate your diet. Some will seem small, like 550-800 mL, but the rice and veggies will be filling enough that you won't miss the extras. The key is to find foods that offer nutrients for few calories, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a tasty treat!

The three pictures above show a few examples of bento boxes. The top is a oval-shaped double tier (the second half was filled with white rice and sesame seeds). It's a nice little box that you can pick off Amazon in a variety of patterns for under $20. It's machine washable and comes with an inner lid for the smaller portion, but it's not water-tight. Most meals will be cooled and dry before you pack them as moisture can breed bacteria, so the water-tightness isn't a massive concern. This is the box I use at home for myself. It's small but very filling.

The bottom box is another two-tier. This is an example of a "men's bento" because it's unadorned with flowers or silliness and holds a lot. I got this one from Amazon (notice any patterns?) for around $25. The lid snaps on snugly and fits a pair of chopsticks under the cover, easy to wash out, and it's microwave and dishwasher safe. It can hold liquids in the top tier, but I would rather take something else for soup. It's handled a runny curry just fine, though. Bob loves this one and gets a few envious stares. The only downside is getting him to remember to take it home.

The middle should be easily recognized. You know these, right? Gladware sandwhich-size. This is one of my Budget Bento experiments, but more than once, I've filled a few for Bob when he forgot his bento box. These are great, disposable if worn out, and won't break the bank. If you want to start bentos but don't have a lot of cash to slap down on a designer box, these can look just as nice. Personally, I don't love all the plastic picks shaped like characters, frilly designs, and odd dividers that other sites enjoy. For me, it's the recipes and presentation. Good food stands alone.

So, that's a little introduction. I have some tutorials that I'll put up and more to share, so keep checking back! If you're eager to try, go ahead and get started. Fill your box and tuck veggies into the corners to keep the food from sliding around. You'll have fun with the attempt and enjoy the meal a little more. Thanks for reading!