Focus: Make Your Own Lunch

In the spirit of the 30-Month Plan, each month I will feature a single goal entry for that month. It may be something that I am working on myself, or something that I found particularly helpful in the past. This month it is one that I found helped me a lot. It isn’t going to sound very earth shattering when I share it with you, but it has made an incredible difference for me, and that is making my lunch, a hot lunch, every day.

Upfront investment: a wide-mouth thermos and a re-useable lunch container. I actually use an old metal lunch box. And when I forget it different places around the school, I get a call or a text that says, “Hey Natalie, you left your lunch box —.” Almost everyone knows that it is mine.

And yes, in some ways it is easier to bring a couple of bucks and buy lunch. But here’s the thing: I am stressed out at work. I feel like I have too much to do and too little time and my students always seem to need something. Going out of the building actually stresses me out even more, because I am freaking out the entire time I am gone, afraid that I won’t get back to school in time. Going to the cafeteria stresses me out because there is a line, and I might have to stand in it for a few minutes. If I bring something that needs to be heated, I might have to wait for the microwave to become available, and this, too, stresses me out. Time is my big issue, and what I found is that if I can reach around and pull out my lunch, undo the thermos cap and eat, I am much more relaxed.

One of the things I do on Sunday is make my lunches for the week. I usually make some sort of soup-base that can take some fermented vegetables being mixed in. It isn’t complicated and doesn’t really take very long. I portion it in pint jars.

During the week, while I am making the children’s lunches in the morning, I heat up my soup. Tempering the thermos by pouring in boiling water a few minutes before adding the soup really improves its ability to keep things hot because the thermos is already hot, it doesn’t take away any of the heat from the soup. I dump the water, add the soup and then mix in some fermented vegetables.


Red Lentil “Base Soup”

  • 2 T ghee, lard, coconut oil, or butter
  • 1 t ground cumin
  • 1t ground coriander
  • ½ t ground turmeric
  • 1 ½ C red lentils
  • 4 C stock
  • 4 C water

Salt to taste

  1. Heat the fat in a heavy bottom pot.
  2. Add the cumin, coriander and turmeric and fry until it becomes fragrant.
  3. Add the lentils, and swirl around until they are coated.
  4. Add the stock and water. Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for about 1 hour, or until the lentils are cooked to bursting. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  5. Puree with an immersion blender.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you plan to add fermented vegetables, go easy on the salt, as the vegetables carry a heavy salt component.

Traditional Soup

The first Nor’easter of the season blew up the coast yesterday, leaving behind about 1 ¼” of rain and a lot of gusty wind. Had it been cold enough, it would have been about a foot of snow that would have come down sideways. As it was, with highs earlier in the week being closer to 80 and 95% humidity, but not raining, the contrast was sharp and bone-chilling. When my husband first moved here from Minnesota, he didn’t quite understand the Mid-Atlantic winter. Now I am not saying that winter in New Jersey is as brutal as winter in Maine, or even Minnesota, but it does have it’s own characteristic not-very-charming quirks, like storms that leave behind 2 inches of rain instead of 20 inches of snow because it was 34ºF, not 30ºF. His observation was this: At least in Minnesota, the snow stays frozen on your frozen coat. Here this just soaks through everything. And how does one get warm again? Hot showers and soup. Homemade traditional soups are easy to make.

Growing up, there were three kinds of soup: condensed in a can, powered in an envelope, or frozen in “containers.” The containers are of particular importance because the soup within came from my grandmother’s kitchen. It was highly prized in the family and highly sought after. We all had our favorites: mine was mushroom-barley. I think there may have been treaties more easily negotiated than the division of soup in my grandmother’s kitchen. But all of it was null and void if someone did not return “the container.” You could stand at the stove, make your move toward the pot, but if you hadn’t returned your container, my grandmother was loath to give you another. What were these prized possessions? These tickets to soup euphoria? Sherbet containers. Yes, you read that right. Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, sherbet came in these plastic containers and my family reused them for adopting leftover soup. Tupperware was too expensive.

As my grandmother got older, I kept trying to get the soup secrets out of her. I tried and tried to replicate her soup and could never quite get it. There was always something missing. When she broke her hip and was in a rehabilitation facility, I called her to say hello and we got started talking about soup. She finally confessed parts of recipes. The underlying problem I would have was that I didn’t have her soup pot. It was this huge enamel pot that had all kinds of cracks and stains. Her recipes went something like this: “You put a soup bone in the bottom and then fill the pot with water up to the black chip that looks like an eye.” Not especially helpful in recipe replication.

Over the years, with much trial and error, I have come up with reasonable versions of my grandmother’s soups. I researched recipes, experimented and ate quite a bit of mediocre soup. In my research, I found that many of the sweet/sour soups quintessential to Eastern Europe called for lemon juice or vinegar to create the sour component. It occurred to me that a peasant in Poland would probably not have lemons, so I let go of any recipe that used lemon juice. One day, as I was pounding down some cabbage for kraut, I had an epiphany: peasants in Eastern Europe did not have lemons. But they more than likely had fermented vegetables like cabbage and beets. The resulting soups were remarkable!


Easy Beet Borscht (Sweet and Sour Beet Soup)

1 T fat for sauté

1 medium onion, rough chop

¼ C apple cider

2 lbs. of raw beets, peeled and cubed

1 quart of stock (any type will do)

1 C fermented beets

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat the fat in the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and sauté until it is translucent. Add the apple cider and scrape up any brown bits form the bottom of the pot. Add the beets the stock and let this simmer until the beets are cooked (about an hour, depending upon how small your cubes are).

Take the soup off the heat and mash the vegetables, or run an immersion (wand) blender through them. Add the fermented beets. Taste for salt and pepper.

Because the fermented beets are salty, do not add any salt until after you add the beets.

Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!

Matzah Meal Latkes

I forgot to put this recipe in with the other Passover “tips.”  Here’s my twist on Matzah Meal pancakes:

  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 T orange zest
  • 3/4 C orange juice
  • 2 t sugar
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 C Matzah meal
  1. Mix together Matzah meal, salt, sugar and orange zest.
  2. Beat egg yolks and then add orange juice and mix thoroughly.
  3. Combine wet and dry ingredients and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least a half hour.
  4. After the rest, stir the wet ingredients.  If the mixture is super stiff, add a little water (like a teaspoon), and stir it in.
  5. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the other ingredients.
  6. Heat a well-buttered skillet or griddle to cook the latkes.

We eat these with butter and honey.

Taking the First Steps

Once upon a time, my husband and I ate a lot of take-out.  We both work.  Our house isn’t air-conditioned.  So you can imagine a hot day in June (or September), when we both got home from work, not wanting to turn on the oven or even light a grill.  It is so easy to pick up a phone and call someone else to deliver a meal to our door.  The thing is, if you can motivate yourself, there are some meals that are easy meals — easy to make, easy to eat and easy to clean up after!

Ask yourself this question, “Why do I eat so many pre-made and fast foods?”

Many times the answer to that question is something along the lines of either not having time to cook, or not knowing how to cook.

When budget time rolled around, we noticed how much we were spending on take-out food.  And then we considered how much food we were wasting each week because while we shopped with intention to cook, we didn’t cook.  So we paid double for this laziness. And we came to this conclusion: we ate a lot of fast food because we didn’t feel like cooking.

How did we overcome this?  Slowly.

One positive change we made was by “double cooking” on the weekend.  On Saturday and Sunday, we would make extra dinner and put it in the fridge.  That way, at least two days during the week, we would be able to have a homemade meal with no muss or fuss.

But Natalie, I don’t cook at all.  So maybe that is where you begin.  By cooking one meal a week at home.  And start simple, based upon the equipment you have and your kitchen skills.  If you are a novice, don’t begin with some technically complicated that requires special tools.

Here’s an easy do-it-yourself meal:

1 2 lb. pkg boneless chicken thighs

1 pepper

1 medium onion

1 clove of garlic

Olive oil to sautee

Salt and pepper
1/2 C red wine (optional)

How to handle the food:

Work with the vegetables first to reduce the chance of cross-contamination.

(WHAT IS THAT? Cross-contamination refers to germs and bacteria that may be on uncooked meat that could be transferred to the vegetables via the cutting board).
1. Cut the top and bottom off of the pepper. Remove the seeds and core. Cut the “tube” that is left in half, and then cut it into 1/8″ strips.
2. Cut the onion in half. Cut the “stem” and “roots” off. Remove the yellow papery skin. Slice both halves in 1/8″ slices.
3. Slice the clove of garlic.
4. Put the vegetables aside and wipe the cutting board.
5. Cut the chicken thighs in bite-sized pieces, put them in a bowl, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss the chicken to mix in the seasoning.
7. In a medium skillet, heat up the oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
8. Add the onion. Stir about every minute or so, for about 5 minutes, until the onions change from white to transparent.
9. If you are using the wine, add it now, and stir until all of the liquid has evaporated.
10. Push the onions to the outside of the pan and put the chicken in the middle. Let it cook for a few minutes before stirring it around. I usually flip it over and then separate it.
11. When the chicken is cooked (10 minutes or so — they are small pieces), add the peppers. Stir everything together. You can add a little more wine here and scrape up all the yummy caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.
12. Put it on a plate and enjoy.

No. It isn’t as easy as calling for take-out. Yes, there will be dishes to clean up. But it puts you in control of the food you eat. Is this my best recipe? No. Not even close. But it is one of the easier ones.

So be bold! Be daring! Cook it yourself!