WANTED: Ideas for BYOBB Lunches

white board art is my pageant talent

In case you haven’t heard, BYOBB stands for Bring Your Own Brown Bag in my world. In fact, I use this abbreviation so much that while I was text-message-inviting someone to a friend’s Super Bowl party last week, my phone auto-corrected BYOB to BYOBB.  This auto-correct malfunction either made me look like kind of an idiot, or completely confused my fellow party-goer (sorry Craig!). Maybe both.

Anyway, when I say BYOBB, I am usually inviting a coworker or friend to enjoy a brown bag lunch with me. I have developed a lovely group of brown bag lunchers in my office, and I have found that a lot of people are into saving money and calories by bringing to work a healthy lunch from home. We have been going strong for 4-6 weeks and I hope to continue. Usually I bring hummus, veggies, a wedge of cheese, and a pita pocket, with a piece of fruit to enjoy later. And after a month or so of that, I am starting to get a little bored.

I have featured ideas for BYOBB lunches here before, and now I am looking for some more creative options. I love checking out bento box lunch ideas and coming up with meal options that sound more appealing to me than what is being served at the lunch cart around the corner (so I don’t cheat!). So do you have any ideas for BYOBB lunches? What do you usually pack, and what do you wish you had more often? Is there a combination you have been dying to try out? Have a cautionary tale about a lunch idea that didn’t go as planned? Want to see my try to makeover one of your favorite guilty pleasure lunch options into a healthier one? Give me all you’ve got!

And as for my ideas, here are a few:

 

Local Favorite: Citizen

It is finally time to reveal one of my favorite lunch spots in Richmond. I have been trying for months to rein in my urge to dine in restaurants every day. Downtown Richmond has so many great options for lunch and I work in a great location that is within walking distance of many of them. However it is healthier for my wallet and my waistline to brown bag it more often than not. While I have been doing better with bringing my lunch to work, I make an almost-weekly exception just for Citizen.

Tucked into a building on 9th Street, Citizen is a gem that I discovered last year through a tip off in a Victory Farms CSA member newsletter during its opening week.

You may never see it there if it weren’t for a black sandwich board on 9th street, adorned with a constantly changing drawing and clever phrase to draw you in. During the height of the Lincoln Fever that was the Richmond filming of Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, the board displayed a familiar character to greet us daily.

Once you get past Lincoln, or a snowman, or a jack-o-lantern, or whoever it is on the specials board today, you get to Lauren and Greg. And they are awesome. Their constant banter and personal service make you feel at home, if your childhood home included an excellent menu executed by a creative and talented chef.

Lauren always greets us by name and no matter how crazy it is in there, she remains calm under pressure. She gracefully handles the incoming calls and line of walk-in customers simultaneously and consistently delivers service with a smile. If you aren’t sure what to order, she is excellent at giving suggestions and answering questions about the menu.

Greg rules the roost and cooks almost all of the sandwiches and sides to order. From what I can tell by watching the completely exposed kitchen, he is insistent on perfect execution of his dishes, yet he breaks his focus on the food just often enough to engage with customers. It must be difficult to cook every order while on display for eight and a half hours each day, but he pulls it off. It appears to me that he has the right balance of discipline and hospitality to make his open kitchen work for him. I have been known to boldly and firmly tell chattering dinner guests to “get out of my kitchen!” while entertaining, so I have a lot of respect for this guy.

So should we talk about the food?

Citizen calls their sandwiches “tortas” and they come out hot and pressed from being grilled on the flat top under an iron. One of the best I have ever had is one with jerk collards, pimento cheese and pickled shallots. My current favorite is the roasted butternut squash, curry cashew butter and celery root horseradish slaw. That is jerk collards on the side in the photo, and I highly recommend them.

The tortas come with a choice of side and there is always something pickled on the plate to finish it off. On this day it was a pickled carrot. So delicious.

Citizen has this new quiche type dish that was called a “savory rice pudding” on the day that we ordered it, but I think they’re calling it a quiche on the menu on their facebook page now. Stuffed with vegetables and cheese and topped with an ancho harissa sauce, this was a tasty dish, whatever it was.

I love that Citizen uses local and seasonal ingredients as much as possible and their constantly evolving menu is really exciting to watch. I have gotten so many ideas for my home cooking from the daring flavor combinations and creative uses of seasonal produce from Citizen’s kitchen. The prices are so fair that I don’t even feel guilty for cheating on my brown bag plan on a regular basis, and I have to hand it to them for making good food accessible and affordable.

I feel lucky to have had them move in near my office last summer, and I am looking forward to what the future holds for Citizen. I hope they are a fixture on 9th street for years to come. If you haven’t had a chance to check them out, make the trip and make sure you turn in at the clever sandwich board. But don’t tell Greg and Lauren that Lauren sent you. . . because that would just be confusing.

Citizen is located at 909 East Main Street and they are open from 7:00 AM to 3:30 PM, Monday through Friday. Check out their extremely informative facebook page here: Citizen RVA.

Table for One at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA

When I booked my flight to San Francisco for the annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival, I decided to treat myself before the official festival began. I expected a hectic work week followed by an early morning flight and a jam-packed weekend of what can only be described as food blogger bliss. I wanted some quiet time and I deserved to have it at Alice Waters’ iconic Berkeley, CA restaurant, Chez Panisse. So I made a lunch reservation for one at the Chez Panisse Cafe.

When Chez Panisse opened its doors forty years ago, Alice Waters, the executive chef and owner, started a movement to build a food economy that is “good, clean, and fair.” She is a pioneer of the American cooking philosophy that promotes fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. She is an advocate for sustainable farming practices and food production. Alice Waters testified to the power of local sustainable food long before it became the fast-growing trend that it is today. Because this is a philosophy that guides my food choices, I was thrilled to go to the place where it all began and enjoy a delicious meal upon my arrival in San Francisco.

Some of my friends thought I was crazy for making the trek out to Berkeley to dine solo. When I told people about my plans, I received a few looks of pity, that I would have to endure the lonely experience of sitting at a table for one for an hour that would inevitably be a string of uncomfortable experiences: where to look? what to do? can these people tell I’m eavesdropping on their conversation just to satisfy my desperate yearning for human interaction?

Let's try a half-full mentality, shall we?

I experienced none of these things. Instead I nestled into my corner table, read every word of a beautiful menu, and took in every decorative element of the simply elegant cafe. I was not distracted by gossip from my tablemate. I was not rushed into a menu selection based on someone else’s readiness to order. Surrounded by people enjoying simple, fresh, seasonal food, I did not feel alone.

The meal began with bread and water, served in a beaker-like carafe, delicately engraved with the restaurant logo.

I selected the rigatoni alla Norma. I almost went for a salad because I felt that the pasta would be better for dinner. However as I watched other people’s plates come out, I noticed that several people had ordered full entrees and they all looked amazing. Besides, when will I ever be back at Chez Panisse for dinner? So as not to miss my opportunity, I just went for it. While I waited, I read Holly Hughes’ Best Food Writing 2011 and took in the decor.

Located directly above the main dining room (dinner only, prix fixe), the Chez Panisse Cafe offers a more casual environment with an a la carte menu. Mirrors around the room reflected the warm sunlight and the walls are papered with a collection of past daily menus. A few caught my eye, like Lunch for the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I mused on what I would serve for lunch of Hillary Clinton was coming over, or Michelle Obama. I suppose you would serve what you do best and hope that she liked the selection.

The housemade rigatoni was incredible. I learned earlier this year what a difference fresh ricotta salata makes on a dish and experienced it again here. I was also struck by the uniformity of the vegetables in size and shape and made a mental note to work on my knife skills. I ate every bite on the whole plate and didn’t apologize for it. The servers were very attentive and offered coffee and dessert. I was really impressed with how friendly they were; sometimes when you visit an iconic restaurant such as this one, there is a hint (or a deluge) of snobbery from the waitstaff. Not the case at Chez Panisse. They were delightful.

Yes, I was stuffed but of course I didn’t pass up dessert. I ordered the Frog Hollow Farm pear crisp with toasted almond ice cream. The pears were so fresh and the crisp was exactly what it should be: light and crispy. The ice cream was to die for – how did they achieve the perfect toasted almond flavor? It was warm and smoky and nutty and everything I had hoped it would be. I couldn’t finish the whole thing because I was so full, but I had several perfect bites before I pushed the plate away.

After lunch I strolled through Berkeley and reflected on the meal. Dining alone is not all that bad. I felt way more present in the moment. I saw, smelled, tasted, and heard so much more than I would have if I had dined with a companion. I enjoyed every fresh, local, seasonal bite and was inspired by the dishes I tried. I love sharing food experiences with friends and family, but I will definitely do this again sometime. When I returned to my hotel forty minutes later, refreshed and inspired, I noticed the one downfall of dining alone. There is no one there to tell you when you have fresh, local, seasonal basil in your teeth. Oh well.

Harvest Quinoa Salad

Here in Central Virginia, we have been blessed with a funny in-between season this year that feels a lot like fall. Sure, it’s been a little rainy at times, and the temperatures have been all over the place as the mercury jumps up and down again every few days. Usually we have about three days of fall per year, but this year it feels like we have had fall for two or three day stretches every week or so for the last month and a half. Fall is my favorite season and I feel a little cheated every year in this climate. So this year, I have savored these spells when they come, and then I have tried to appreciate the warm sun or cool rain in between, knowing that fall will be right around the corner soon. . . once again.

There is something about fall that fills me with excitement. Maybe it’s the weather that keeps me on the edge of my seat. Or maybe it’s the great range of sensations that we get to experience during the transition to winter. The crackly crunch of leaves beneath my tennis shoes, then the slippery splash of my yellow rain boots in an unexpected downpour. Wrapping big soft scarves around my neck and buttoning up a cropped trench on a cool morning, then shedding my layers for a warm stroll on a sunny afternoon. The crisp crunch of a fresh apple, and the spicy smoothness of warm pumpkin pie.

This Harvest Quinoa Salad can be served warm or chilled and it offers both the sweetness and the spice that we love about this time of year. I hope it finds a place on your table while the apples are still perfectly ripe this autumn.

Harvest Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 small apple, diced
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1-15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Optional Dressing:

  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Preparation:

  1. Bring vegetable broth to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2.  Add quinoa, curry powder, apple, and raisins to vegetable broth. Stir to combine. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Stir in chickpeas, cover and cook for 5 more minutes.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Serve hot. For a chilled version, combine honey, lemon juice and olive oil and toss salad in dressing to coat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.

 BONUS Beer Pairing

Serve with Sixpoint Sweet Action for a hoppy-malty-bitter-sweet experience you won’t soon forget. You’ll have the best of both worlds. . . all around!

Discovering Daikon: Tofu Banh Mi Sandwiches

In my latest (mis)adventure, I took on this big beautiful root.

From the Japanese words for “big” (dai) and “root” (kon), daikon radish is an interesting ingredient. I had not used it before but I had eaten it in restaurants and seen it in the grocery store, so I decided to give it a try. I love carrots and parsnips, and daikon looks like a giant white one of those, so I thought it would be a big win.

Spoiler alert: It’s not really like a big white carrot. If you’re looking for a big white carrot, stick to the parsnip. Daikon is really more like a big stinky radish.

I decided to make some quick pickled carrot and daikon for banh mi sandwiches. I have wanted to do a veggie redux on these for awhile, so I figured I would kill two birds with one stone, er, root.

I used a few different recipes to develop my own twist on the vegetarian banh mi sandwich. In case you aren’t familiar with it, banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich consisting of grilled, fried or roasted meat and a variety of vegetables or condiments, on a thick crispy baguette. While the sandwich is available in many varieties in several different countries, most of the banh mi I have had have been very spicy. I set out to do a vegetarian version that would give the original a run for its money.

So, let’s get back to my not-so-secret ingredient: diakon. I washed and cut the daikon, in thick matchsticks for this recipe, and then had a taste. I always try to taste a new ingredient raw so that I can understand it better. The daikon was wet and crunchy like a crisp apple, and it had a bitter mustardy taste with a hint of bright spicy pepper. It reminded me of a very mild watered down horseradish. I did a little research, as I always do, and found that daikon is very low in calories and moderately high in vitamin C. From a nutrition standpoint, this vegetable is not at all bad for you, but isn’t incredibly good for you either. I consider it to be almost nutritionally neutral. So I pickled it, of course.

I also marinated and pan fried some tofu, and while the tofu cooked and the carrots and daikon chilled, I prepared the rest of my sandwich ingredients.

Cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeño.

Sriracha mayo.

All that was left to do was toast some bread and assemble the sandwiches. They turned out to be spicy, crunchy, and absolutely delicious. These have a great balance of texture and flavor, and I would love to serve them to guests sometime soon. My only word of warning is to watch the amount of pickled daikon you make. After a day or two in the refrigerator, that stuff gets pungent and it won’t be bad but you won’t want to go near it. I suppose that’s due to its cruciferous nature. Whatever it is, take note. You have been warned.

Vegetarian Banh Mi Sandwiches

Ingredients:

  • 1 (14-ounce) package extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup matchstick-cut carrot
  • 1 cup matchstick-cut daikon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup sliced white onion
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 4 French bread sub rolls, or one large baguette, cut into four smaller loaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs, chopped
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, thinly sliced
  • 1 large cucumber, matchstick-cut
  • 6 Tablespoons mayonnaise or vegannaise
  • 1 Tablespoon sriracha chili sauce

Preparation:

  1. Cut tofu crosswise into 8 (1/2-inch-thick) slices. Press tofu if you have not already done so, to squeeze out all of the water.
  2. Combine soy sauce and ginger in a square baking dish. Arrange tofu slices in a single layer in soy mixture. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight, turning once.
  3. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring until sugar and salt dissolve. Add carrot, daikon, black pepper, and white onion; toss to combine. Let stand 30 minutes in the refrigerator, stirring occasionally. Drain daikon mixture in a colander and pat dry.
  4. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Remove tofu from marinade; discard marinade. Pat tofu slices dry with paper towels. Add tofu slices to pan; sauté 4 minutes on each side or until crisp and golden.
  5. Preheat broiler. Cut bread in half lengthwise. Open halves, laying bread cut side up on a baking sheet. Broil 2 minutes or until lightly browned.
  6. Combine mayo and sriracha in a small bowl. Spread mayo on one side of each loaf of bread.
  7. Place tofu slices on bottom half of bread; top with daikon mixture, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeño slices. Top with other half of bread. Add more sriracha as needed.

MexiKali Wraps

One thing I love to eat when the weather warms up is Mexican food. The weekly taco night is a must in the summer, and Kyle and I usually enjoy tacos, burritos, or burrito bowls outside with a cold beer. Sometimes I struggle to get a serving of vegetables in for this once-a-week meal. I started adding steamed broccoli or sauteed zucchini to our burritos and they were a major hit. This week, I decided to get a little more creative and I developed the MexiKali wrap.

Inspired by Brittany’s Vegetarian Zucchini Boats over at EBF, I included a little kale in these tasty wraps. My only regret was the white flour tortillas – the store was out of whole wheat and I think I would have preferred the heartier wheat wrap. Otherwise, they were a great summer meal.

MexiKali Wraps

I filled these wraps with:

  • black beans
  • cilantro-lime rice
  • crispy sauteed kale strips
  • tomato salsa
  • diced avocado (sprinkled with lime juice)

Cilantro-Lime Rice

  1. Cook one cup of brown rice according to package directions (yields 2 cups cooked rice).
  2. While rice is still warm, add 3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice.
  3. Stir in a handful of chopped cilantro and serve warm.

Crispy Sauteed Kale Strips

  1. Wash one half a bunch of kale. I used Red Russian kale for these wraps for its mild flavor. Dry leaves in a salad spinner or air dry on paper towels.
  2. Remove stems from kale. Stack 6-8 leaves and roll them lengthwise like a cigar. Starting at one end, slice the leaves into thin strips. This is how I chiffonade basil, and it works really well for chopping kale into bite-sized pieces for sandwiches.
  3. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil to a skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 Tbsp minced garlic or 1/2 cup thinly sliced onions to the pan for flavor.
  4. Toss in the kale and saute, stirring with a wooden spoon, until tender. Continue to fry the kale until it becomes crispy. Season with salt and pepper if desired.

Canned Tomato Salsa

This salsa is good for when you want fresh-tasting salsa but the tomatoes aren’t in season yet. Bonus points if you canned these yourself from last year’s crop!

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups canned diced tomatoes
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced (use gloves!)
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely diced
  • 3 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • Salt

Preparation:

  1. Pour the tomatoes out onto a large cooking board and chop with a large, broad knife to make sure they are uniformly chopped to a fine dice.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, jalapeno, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and garlic. Add salt to taste.

I hope this one finds a place on your table this summer. I’m sure it will be returning to mine. Have a great week!

BYOBB Lunches: Mediterranean Sandwich

Onward with the BYOBB lunches. . . Need an idea for a delicious bring your own brown bag lunch this week? Have a sandwich that is more exciting than your average PB&J.

Mediterranean Sandwich

Between two slices of whole wheat bread, pile on the following toppings:

  • thinly sliced cucumber
  • roasted piquillo peppers from a jar
  • 2 tablespoons hummus
  • spring mix
  • fresh crumbled feta
  • 2 teaspoons TJ’s Goddess dressing

Pack up with two healthy sides like lowfat yogurt and berries (mine are frozen) or carrot sticks and an apple. Refrigerate until lunch time and then dig in!