The Just Bento Cookbook 2 by Makiko Itoh

I calculate at the rate of 12 years x 40 weeks x 5 days, that I ate 2400 lunches at school, every one of them prepared by my mother. My superhuman mother had four children, so she made going on for 10000 of these damn (as she may have thought) lunches, on top of working full time and studying almost full time. Every single one had the same components: a sandwich – if it was cheese it was Kraft, that one wrapped in alfoil in a box – fruit, and for morning tea either a simple cake or biscuits she made herself. Definitely the highlight. On Mondays, lack of fresh bread meant that they were cold toasted sandwiches, an ugh for we children who critiqued our basic lunchtime fare. At some point she started making them in bulk and freezing them. It didn’t seem to make much difference to us, defrosted or fresh. And in the waste not, want not way of the world back then, once she started using gladwrap, we would bring it home, she’d wash it, hang it out on the line and it would get used again. And again.

So for me, the idea of a bento lunch is fantasy world. I love the occasional lunchtime bento restaurant outing as a grownup, but I look at it and think ‘all that trouble’, ‘all that time’. Who can do that? Maybe people like S-L, who makes her own lunch to take to work and introduced me to Makiko Itoh’s blog. But my mother? Surely not.

Having said that, the thing that is most striking about Itoh’s writings is that they are dominated by the pragmatism of saving time, eliminating trouble. She manages to walk some very fine line between this and maintaining the aesthetics of food that are so important to Japanese culture. Each bento box section addresses the following:

  • the things to save time – so much can be cooked and frozen ahead of time, or prepared and kept in the fridge for a few days
  • the things that need to be done in the morning
  • things that need to be done to ensure eating safety.
  • the aesthetics of how to pack the box

She also constantly stresses health considerations, both specific – if you need low salt then….if you need sugar free then…. – and general – variety is the key to healthy eating, the more colours you have on the plate the more balanced and healthy your eating will be.

One of the things that attracted me to the Just Bento blog was that Itoh lives in the French countryside, not so far from me. This lends itself to thinking out of the box (so to speak), being adaptable, using what is available in one’s local area. Itoh’s pragmatism is seen in her flexibility as to what one can put in a bento box. She isn’t constrained by ideas of being true to tradition. She suggests lots of dishes which start off as a dinner dish, with the left-overs becoming part of the bento lunch, and Western dishes find places in her suggested menus. Buy pre-cut and packaged vegetables, tinned fruit – she is not judgemental about these things.

In any case, what is tradition? We see through this book, that the idea of ‘bento’ in Japan is no fixed, timeless thing. Hence her section on ‘Rice Sandwiches’, introduced with the comment that

A  recent bento revolution in Japan is the rice sandwich, known as an onigirazu, meaning ‘not pressed (into a ball),’ a play on words on the traditional onigiri rice ball. The advantage of a rice sandwich over a rice ball is that you can vary the fillings a lot more, and put in a lot more filling too, making a satisfying lunch.

For those overwhelmed by the idea of having to prepare several things, involving lots of ingredients, even if much of it has been done beforehand, there is a section on one-dish bentos, ranging from yakisoba and fried rice, to rather Western ideas like ‘Chicken, Chickpea and Swiss Chard’

I don’t have an excuse as an adult to even consider going bento, as I’ve (almost) never worked away from home. However, I use the recipes and ideas for cooking at home, nothing is beautiful, nothing is bento, but it all tastes good. Not surprising since, as mentioned, she suggests using left-overs as part of the bento box menu.

On my first trip to Japan I discovered the most foreign place I’d ever visited. Not least that applied to the cookbooks I’d buy to bring back home. Although they had the comfort of being in English, there any sense of familiarity ended. They were organised in ways I didn’t understand. The ingredients were often completely unintelligible and unobtainable, with no idea what one might do as a substitute. I’d come back from my trips to Japan full of enthusiasm, buy a bunch of mysterious things at a Japanese grocer, and before long none of them would have any meaning at all for me.

The Just Bento Cookbook 2, like its predecessor, is quite the opposite of these sometimes challenging experiences. Itoh uses basic ingredients which are obtainable anywhere. As luck would have it I have a couple of excellent Japanese grocery shops close to hand, but most supermarkets these days stock the basics called for here – miso, soy, sesame, mirin, sake, Japanese rice, a couple of vinegars, oyster sauce. There are a few more esoteric ingredients, but nothing that the ideas stand and fall by. It is worth pointing out that she uses the microwave a lot, but as far as I can see, not having one doesn’t matter, most things are straightforward to make without.

There is a vast amount packed into the pages of this nicely laid out and organised book, covering a lot of ground. To end with an example, I love the sound of this, ‘Miso Soup Balls’.

Miso Soup Balls – makes 30 balls, one per serve

Ingredients

  • 300g miso (she doesn’t specify a type of miso for this)
  • 1 tablespoon dashi stock granules
  • added ingredients of your choice such as:
  • chopped green onion, frozen mixed vegetables (she suggests 1 tablespoon), a pinch of wakame seaweed, pinch of kiriboshi daikon, toasted sesame seeds, abura-age fried tofu (a tablespoon), chopped chicken (a tablespoon)

Method

Thoroughly mix all these together. She doesn’t mention this, but one could obviously vary the 30 balls by dividing the miso and dashi into several groups. She suggests a spoonful, shaped into a ball after wrapping in plastic wrap. Many won’t like that idea these days. When I’m making gyoza/wontons, I lay them all on a tray in the freezer until frozen and then pop them in a container, they don’t seem to stick. I imagine you could try doing this here too.

She adds the idea of making the miso soup balls plain and taking along small quantities of other ingredients, rather than freezing it all. Mushrooms, baby spinach, as well as the ones she lists above.

The idea is to take one of these as part of lunch, assuming that you have access to hot water. Add to a cup of water, stir to dissolve and you have lovely home made miso soup with bits in it. I’m tempted to make this for using at home. I make miso soup, but I get out of the habit. This is a way of ensuring a regular supply without going through all the preparation whenever one wants it. Small stroke of genius!

This book is great value at $19.95US cover price. Foyles has it at £16.99.

 

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The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander

I bought this when it first came out and then I bought the second edition as well. Perhaps this will speak better than words as to the estimation with which I hold The Cook’s Companion.

Still. I like words, and I’m a bit shocked to discover that I’ve never written about this book. It is, in my opinion as the chief household cook, as a person who loves to read cookbooks, and as a bookseller of cookbooks over the years, one of those classics which will be with us in a hundred years’ time.

The aim of the author was to appeal to ordinary folk and so it is full of things that anybody can do. Its Australian bent discusses food from that local perspective, ingredients by class, what one should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do with them. Its generous layout permits margin notes, small ideas which are as important to the book as the more lavish recipes which take most of the page. Grate apple, says one such note. Breakfast is strong toast, generously buttered, with the apple on top. Cinnamon, of course. I discovered this in a period where I didn’t eat sugar and it was a revelation as a simple, healthy dessert breakfast. Alternatively, I discovered, mash banana and have it the same way instead. This book is not about slavishly follow it, you will also think for yourself. One thing will come from another.

On my personal blog, where I keep my cooking notes, amongst other things, quite a few of my favourite things start off as recipes from this book and then take a direction to be something else as well, or instead. Her recipe for Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad is a wonderful summer dish, but how about deconstructing it? I turn it into something one puts together at the table, rice paper rolls. The engagement, both with the food and each other that takes place in those sorts of meals is special.

Or take her Italian Olive Paste. A revelation to me, I was astonished at how good it was. Alexander has suggestions as to what to do with it, but I offer my own. It becomes part of a sauce for spaghetti, which is tuna based.

There were a couple of reasons I wanted the second edition. One was that I have used the first so much that it is covered in the evidence. Some pages look like Jackson Pollock’s got at them. Now I have another copy that will remain pristine for ever. But the second reason was curiosity to see what’s been revised, corrected, changed. No book can be this big and detailed without having the odd mistake. Living in Melbourne and sharing the cooking for Christmas one year, I decided to make the avocado mousse of the first edition. It was an inedible disaster. The best reason not to make it, if you haven’t already discovered, is that the recipe is not in the second edition. It was that irredeemably flawed.

To end conventionally, that is to say with dessert, The Cook’s Companion shines here too. Easy banana cake is one of those cakes that can stand a few days hanging around – though it has a tendency not to. Her sponge topping is a perfect way to dress up stewed fruit in winter. I serve it with creme fraiche or strained yoghurt, but here it’s with Gruyere double cream, what else in Switzerland?

apple with sponge topping

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery

I guess if you live in parts of the world that don’t have proper summers you wouldn’t understand that in Australia there are often long periods of those months where you simply can’t cook. It is too hot for both the process and the result. After a while you long for the cold and the possibilities of cooking that become so much wider. Now as winter begins in Melbourne curries are very much on my brain.

This book changed my life. It was the first cookbook I read that explained the processes going on. Why do you fry the onions this much and not that? Why fry the yoghurt until all the water in it has disappeared and then add water? I love to understand what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, so this book was a revelation to me. I was about thirty when Claire gave it to me, and before long I became a ‘good’ cook, though it was still a long time before I learned how to cook toast. I can see that to some extent the reason for the depth of explanation in this book is that Indian cooking is by far and away the most profound, complex food in the world. The average Italian cookbook, in retrospect, I understand says nothing much about process because there really isn’t much to say. A few basic rules to be repeated over and over, if I may generalise. Indian cooking could not be more different.

This recipe was the first Indian dish I made. Rogan Josh. The most important thing to take note of is the gradual incorporation of the yoghurt, ensuring each spoonful is blended in very well before continuing with the next. It is this that ensures you don’t get a separated/curdled sort of result. Patience! There is no point rushing this. And, please. Full fat yoghurt, not that horrible stuff that’s like dishwater.

As usual with Indian meat dishes, make extra and freeze. It’s silly not to.

Red lamb or beef stew: Rogan Josh

Prep time:
30 mins
Cook time:
2 hrs 20 mins
Serves:
4-6

Ingredients

• 2 x 2.5 cm ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
• 8 cloves garlic, peeled
• 4 tbsp water, plus 300-450ml
• 10 tbsp vegetable oil
• 900 g boned shoulder or leg of lamb, or stewing beef (chuck) cut into 2.5cm cubes
• 10 cardamom pods
• 2 bay leaves
• 6 cloves
• 10 peppercorns
• 2.5 cm cinnamon sticks
• 200g onions, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 tsp ground coriander
• 2 tsp ground cumin
• 4 tsp bright red paprika, mixed with 0.25-1 tsp cayenne pepper
• 1.25 tsp salt
• 6 tbsp natural yogurt
• 0.25 tsp garam masala
• freshly ground black pepper

Method
1. Put the ginger, garlic and 4 tbsp water into the container of an electric blender. Blend well until you have a smooth paste.

2. Heat the oil in a wide heavy pan over a medium-high heat. Brown the meat cubes in several batches and set to one side. Put the cardamom pods, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon into the same hot oil. Stir once and wait until the cloves swell and the bay leaves begin to take on colour. This just takes a few seconds. Now put in the onions. Stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until the onion turn a medium-brown colour. Put in the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds. Then add the coriander, cumin, paprika-cayenne and salt. Stir and fry for another 30 seconds. Add the fried meat cubes and juices, Stir for 30 seconds. Now put in 1 tbsp of the yogurt. Stir and fry for about 30 seconds or until the yogurt is well blended. Add the remaining yogurt, a tablespoon at a time as before. Stir and fry for 3-4 minutes.

3. Now add 300ml water if you are cooking lamb and 450ml if you are cooking beef. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil, scraping in all browned spices on the sides and bottom of the pan. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for about an hour for the lamb and 2 hours for beef, or until the meat is tender. (It could be baked, covered, in a pre-heated 180C/gas 4 oven for the same length of time or until tender.) Every 10 minutes or so, give the meat a good stir. When the meat is tender, take off the lid, turn the heat up to medium and boil away some of the liquid. You should end up with tender meat in a think, reddish-brown sauce. Spoon off the fat. Sprinkle garam masala and black pepper over the meat before you serve and mix them in.

Many of the recipes in this book are now a regular part of my Indian cooking. I can’t recommend it highly enough for somebody starting out who needs to be spoonfed. But that’s not to say you won’t get a lot out of it if you are experienced. It’s a classic.

The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

Medusa by Michael Dibdin

It seems to me that in general one expects living authors to run out of words before breath – entirely unreasonable, I know, but there it is. Dibdin died too early, making this an unexpected treat, an Aurelio Zen I thought I’d read but hadn’t, I realised leafing through it in a bookshop in Australia.

As usual, I love the food details, minor thoughts one files away in brain under cooking. Atrociously ignorant about a country for which I hold a passport, I’ve probably learned as much about Italy from the Zen series as from any other source. Politics, culture, history abound without ever seeming like a substitute for a story.

On top of all that, an antiquarian bookseller has a big part. For what more could one ask?