How long has it been since you ran down the hall, fist pumping in the air, hollering and yodeling, hopping from one foot to the other, in a veritable quivering ecstasy of anticipation for what you’d find in your crinkled brown paper lunch bag?
My mother has always been a big believer in seeking out joy in the prosaic ho-hum tasks of every day life, often making Mary Poppins seem like a depressive slouch by comparison. While I’ve never been one to whistle while I work, or rise at the butt-crack of dawn with a maniacal grin on my face, as her daughter, I’ve enjoyed the windfall of her (sometimes annoyingly) rah rah sis boom bah ‘tude.
She took packing lunches for me as a child very seriously. Having a balanced lunch — a veg, a fruit, a hearty protein-based main dish, a delicious-but-not-wildly-sugary treat — was naturally de rigueur, as essential to life as breathing. She liked to mix it up; peanut butter sandwiches were my go-to fave, but she tried to expand my culinary horizons just a smidge. I never knew what else I’d find nestled up with the peanut butter — whipped butter, caramel chips, bacon, cream cheese, chocolate shavings, carrot rounds. Cholesterol, happily, clearly wasn’t a concern. But in addition to being delish it also had to be fun — a concept that not all of the other mothers (judging from my peers’ sad brown bags) seemed to totally grasp.
From weird notes tucked in the bag, slapstick jokes written on my napkin, teeny little stuffed animals on special occasions, Cracker Jack treats, or random items that made her giggle (a wadded up ball of foil was one of her trademark oddball additions, a pair of dice once), or something useful but cool, like a few hot pink paper clips, she always found a way to make lunch an event.
It’s been a long time since I shrieked with joy over the contents I find in my brown paper lunch bag — and since my husband isn’t the type to goose my meals with glow-in-the-dark sparkle bouncy balls, I had to spice up the food. Below, check out my latest favorite lunch-y go-tos: Mascarpone Polenta with Olive Oil Fried Eggs and Parmesan Tuiles (I eat the fried eggs the first time I make it and then bring the leftovers for lunch, sans eggs) & Soba Tofu Salad with a karate kick of spice. Click below for more pictures and recipes!
Mascarpone Polenta with Olive Oil Fried Eggs
Makes 6 servings
- 5 cups water
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- pinch baking soda
- 1 cup fine-ground corn meal
- 3 TBSP butter, divided
- 2 TBSP mascarpone cheese
- 1 tsp truffle oil (optional)
- 2 TBSP olive oil, divided
- 3 eggs
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring water and salt to boil. Reduce to simmer, add dash of baking soda, and slowly whisk in corn meal over low heat. The baking soda will help soften the germ around the corn meal, making it cook faster and come out much creamier.
- I know this sounds crazy, but after all of the lumps are gone, turn off the heat and cover the pot. I haven’t lost my mind, I promise.
- Come back after 10 minutes. Whisk the polenta, cover again, and turn on the heat to lowest setting. Come back in 10 minutes. I know this goes against everything you were taught about making polenta, but don’t panic. It’s going to be fine, I promise.
- Deep breaths.
- Whisk the polenta again, continuing for about 10-15 minutes, until cooked through. Add a bit more salt, take off the heat.
- Add 2 TBSP butter and mascarpone, whisk in. Add truffle oil, if using, and whisk. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour into greased, small baking sheet (I use a 9-inch square brownie pan). Allow to cool, cover and hold until ready to proceed, up to two days in the fridge well-covered.
- Cut into square, round or diamond shapes (about 12 pieces) with knife or cookie cutters and get ready to fry, baby, fry!
- Preheat oven to 350. Grate about 3/4 a cup Parmesan cheese, and place in little circular piles on rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment or a silpat. Cook until cheese is melty and golden, about 5-10 minutes, checking frequently. Remove from pan with offset spatula and set aside to cool.
- Heat 1 TBSP oil in skillet for polenta. Fry those babies up in batches (don’t crowd the pan!) and keep warm in the oven.
- Wipe out skillet, add 1 more TBSP oil and 1 butter, fry up eggs with salt and pepper to taste. After about 4 minutes (I like my eggs soft), add 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar and cook until it’s reduced to a syrupy glaze.
- Serve one egg over every 3 or so pieces of warm polenta, with parmesan tuiles as crunchy, yummy garnish.
- Bring leftover tuiles and fried polenta for lunch!
Nutritional breakdown for Mascarpone Polenta with Olive Oil Fried Eggs: About 325 calories and 15 grams of fat. Rich in protein, calcium, fiber. Like most delicious things, there’s also lots of saturated fat, relatively speaking.
Cost breakdown for Mascarpone Polenta with Olive Oil Fried Eggs: This dish is a great marriage between luxe (truffle oil, mascarpone) and the prosaic (corn meal, eggs), and the cost balances out accordingly. It comes in at about $1 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: A dash of baking soda will change your life; the soda helps break down the cornmeal, making it silky soft. And it will still be lump free, and as smooth as pudding if you whisk aggressively in the beginning and the end. I love mascarpone and truffle oil in polenta for it’s added touch of rich, tasty umami. Frying in a butter/oil blend is perfect for the nutty flavors of butter and the higher smoking point of olive oil. Clarified butter or ghee would be wonderful too.
Soba Tofu Noodles
Makes 6-8 servings
- 7 oz. tofu, drained and pressed, cut into domino shapes
- 1/2 TBSP vegetable oil
- 1 12.8-oz package organic soba noodles, cooked in salted water and drained
- 1 carrot, peeled and grated
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1/4 cup toasted pecans
- 1 cup edamame, shelled and boiled in salted water until tender, about 2 minutes
- 1 bunch scallions, chopped into thin rounds
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- Dressing: Dump 1 garlic clove, 1 TBSP cilantro, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1 TBSP soy sauce, 3 TBSP rice vinegar, 1 TBSP tahini, 1 tsp dark sesame oil, 2 TBSP vegetable oil in blender and mix on high, season with salt and pepper, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Heat saute pan with vegetable oil. When hot, add tofu in batches and fry until golden brown, adding more oil if needed and salt and pepper to taste. Don’t crowd the pan and set aside cooked tofu until everything is done.
- In large bowl, toss noodles, vegetables, nuts, cooked tofu, herbs and dressing. Serve. It’s even better the next day!
Nutritional breakdown for Soba Tofu Noodles: About 375 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving. Full of protein, essential amino acids, Vitamins A, C.
Cost breakdown for Soba Tofu Noodles: About $2.25 per serving.
Verdict / In the Future: Crispy fried tofu, soft noodles, fresh, springy veggies, rich nuts and a tart, creamy dressing. Okay, so eating it isn’t as fun as a bacon, cream cheese and peanut butter sandwich cut into the shape of a shooting star, but it’s a close second.