Thinking inside the bag

Mark Bittman / New York Times News Service /

There are few brown-baggers in the building where I work. This is not because the food in the neighborhood is so great (it isn't), or because the cafeteria is Google-like (it isn't), but because many people are either “too busy” or too embarrassed to bring their lunch. Somehow one of our oldest and sanest traditions has become a laughingstock: It's not hip to bring lunch.

Let's try to fix that.

As a meal, lunch is undeniably tough; most people say that and I recognize it. But something good happens when you make the default a brown bag.

I am not talking literally about brown bags; you can bring your groovy REI lunchbox, your authentic Mumbai tiffin carrier or — as I tend to do — your assortment of recycled takeout containers.

Most often (this is an observation, not a study), those who bring their lunches are going one of three routes:

Carrots, celery sticks, apples, a tomato, a banana. Basically a few things they can grab in two seconds and eat without guilt.

Leftovers. This is obviously the simplest route and, because almost every workplace has a microwave now, an extremely practical and often savory one.

Then there is the creative assortment that may require last-minute assembly at work. Again, the microwave helps here.

My strategy is to try to have all of these things working for me. I'm not above bringing leftover pasta, or stews, or other things that are easy to reheat. I do resort to the grab-and-go style of raw food at least once a week. And I often try (I really do) to pack a few components separately and then ready them for microwaving at lunchtime.

The key, as in so much good eating, is having a well-stocked pantry. I'm talking here not only about olive oil and vinegar and soy sauce, the kinds of things that every cook has. And I'm talking not only about tuna and sardines and maybe bread and tomatoes, the staples of many brown-baggers.

I'm also talking about building blocks, like tomato sauce, a pot of beans (or grains, equally valuable), a pan of roasted vegetables, perhaps even a roast chicken. These are the kinds of elements that you can put together while you're doing something else — whether cooking a meal or watching a football game or catching up on email — and that will last all week, adding substance, flavor and real appeal to whatever else you have lying around. Get that kind of thing going, and you'll be overwhelmed not by the challenges of putting together a decent lunch before you leave the house, but by the possibilities.

There's at least one other decidedly easy way to add character to even the most mundane dishes. That involves creating a fresh sauce of the type that takes little or no cooking (I've provided five no-cook types here) and keeps for a few days. You can think of a vinaigrette as the prototype here, but even the kinds of things we might once have thought of as exotic — soy-ginger dipping sauce! — are quickly put together using now-common ingredients.

Planned leftovers, as opposed to random ones, can make a huge difference. What you can do with a few pieces of cooked chicken or steak, a couple of fish fillets, even a pile of cooked vegetables is nothing short of creating another meal.

This is, of course, a strategy built on cooking: You can't have leftovers or a container of roasted vegetables unless you cook. And in a way, the intent to bring lunch can help turn you into a cook who's more efficient, less wasteful and ultimately less recipe-dependent. Because the lunch thing really isn't about cooking, but assembling.

If you have beans, grains, greens — cooked and raw (but washed, of course) — cooked and raw vegetables, a sauce or two, plus the staples you normally have in your pantry and then a leftover or two, lunch becomes a snap.

5 basic sauces

This monthly feature explores healthy and delicious food ideas from the New York Times' food columnist.

Basic vinaigrette: You have to decide whether you like 50 percent vinegar, 30 percent or more like 25 percent. Experiment. But start with 1⁄2 cup good olive oil, 1⁄4 cup lemon juice or sherry (or other) vinegar, a minced shallot and some salt and pepper. If you use a blender, the emulsion will hold for days.

Sesame dipping sauce: Whisk together two tablespoons dark sesame oil, two tablespoons peanut oil, one tablespoon minced onion or shallot or a little garlic, two tablespoons soy sauce and, if you like, one tablespoon sesame seeds or finely chopped peanuts. Cilantro is a good garnish.

Tahini sauce: Combine 1⁄2 cup tahini with some of its oil, 1⁄2 cup water, the juice of one lemon, one peeled garlic clove, salt, pepper and 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin in a food processor; process until smooth. Or whisk the ingredients in a bowl (mince the garlic first). Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more lemon juice, oil, water or garlic as needed.

Pico de gallo: Combine 11⁄2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, 1⁄2 large chopped white onion or three or four scallions, one teaspoon minced garlic, minced fresh chili (jalapeno, Thai or habanero) to taste, 1⁄2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley leaves and two tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice or one tablespoon red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste and let sit to allow the flavors to develop.

Raw onion chutney: Finely chop two small to medium or one large white onion and combine with one teaspoon salt, 1⁄2 teaspoon coarsely cracked black peppercorns, 1⁄4 cup red wine (or distilled white) vinegar and one teaspoon paprika. Let sit for an hour. Stir in cayenne to taste, then taste and adjust seasoning.

Cold Sesame Noodles with Crunchy Vegetables

Makes 4 servings.

Salt

4 C chopped fresh crunchy raw vegetables: snow peas, bell peppers, cucumbers, scallions

12 oz fresh Chinese egg noodles or long pasta like linguine

2 TBS dark sesame oil

1⁄2 C tahini, peanut butter or a combination

2 TBS sugar

3 TBS soy sauce, or to taste

1 tsp minced fresh ginger (optional)

1 TBS rice or white-wine or other vinegar

Hot sesame oil or Tabasco sauce to taste

1⁄2 tsp black pepper, or more to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Prepare the vegetables: trim, seed, peel as necessary and cut into bite-size pieces. Reserve in a container until ready to use.

Cook the noodles in the boiling water until tender but not mushy. When they're done, rinse in cold water, then toss with 1⁄2 tablespoon sesame oil. Store in one or more containers.

Whisk together remaining 11⁄2 tablespoons sesame oil, the tahini, sugar, soy, ginger, vinegar, hot oil and black pepper in a large bowl. Thin the sauce with hot water until it's about the consistency of heavy cream; you will need 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup per serving. Store as desired.

When you're ready to eat, toss a portion of the noodles and a portion of the vegetables; top with sauce and stir to coat.

Escabeche Salad

Makes 4 servings.

1 C extra-virgin olive oil

6 TBS good vinegar, or to taste

Salt and pepper

2 tsp Dijon mustard

1⁄4 C minced onion, shallot or scallion

1⁄2 tsp minced garlic

2 C leftover chicken, beef, fish or the like (even tofu)

2 C cooked vegetables, rinsed with boiling water if necessary to remove any sauce

6 C salad greens, washed, dried and packed in a container

Whisk or blend olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, Dijon, onion and garlic; adjust seasoning as necessary.

Pour the sauce over the protein and vegetables, and refrigerate overnight and for up to several days. When you're ready to serve, put a portion of the escabeche over greens.

Microwave Mixed Rice

Makes 1 serving.

11⁄2 C cooked rice

1 C (more or less) leftover cooked vegetables or meat

1⁄4 C vinaigrette, sesame dipping sauce, tahini sauce, pico de gallo, onion chutney, pesto, hummus or any other sauce

Salt and ground black pepper

Toss ingredients into a large bowl, stir to combine and season with salt and pepper. Microwave for 1 minute.

Stir and cook for another minute or 2 or until warm. Serve.