My daughter goes to toddler school and I prepare her school snacks. At the same time, I have been trying to be more conscious about what I eat during the workday, by preparing my own “baon”. I’m picky when it comes to food; when I was younger, I hated bringing my own food to school as (I believed) it didn’t taste quite the same as freshly cooked food. I also found that I liked food that was visually delicious, or nice to look at. So my research for fast, healthy recipes online led me to bento making and eventually, Makiko Itoh’s Just Bento blog.
Makiko’s blog is full of wonderful, inspiring, easy to follow recipes. She doesn’t stick to only Japanese ingredients, which is good for those living outside the country but have the taste for Japanese cuisine. I have been following her blogs and have tried out some of her recipes, such as those for soboro and karaage, and they turned out delicious. So last Christmas I decided to gift myself with her book – which finally arrived yesterday!
In her book, she compiles over 150 recipes arranged into 25 bento menus (mix and match!), with menus such as Chicken and Three-Color Pepper Stir-Fry, Chicken Karaage Bento, and international recipes that can be adapted into a bento, such as Salad Nicoise Bento and Spanish Omelette Bento.
Her book also offers tips and guides, all very practical and sensible, such as doing some of the prep work the night before (I recently tried this with the potato-corn-tuna-cheese patties I made after dinner and then simply baked in the morning, cutting down minutes of my time to prepare my daughter’s snacks!). The best thing, for me, about her book is the included timeline for assembling the bento – it involves some multitasking, but it’s more of overlapping rather than doing multiple things at the same time.
I am so looking forward to trying out all the recipes in her book, and more from her blog! Here’s a sample recipe from her book (hope I’m not violating any copyright laws, this was posted in Amazon.com so it’s publicly available!)
From Just Bento: Chicken and Three-Color Pepper Stir-fry Bento
This beginner bento is made with everyday ingredients that you may already have in your pantry. It can be assembled in twenty minutes or less without any advance preparation. It’s a good one to start your bento-making adventures with.
Makes 1 serving.
- Chicken and Three-Color Pepper Stir-fry
- Instant Cabbage and Cucumber Pickles
- Blanched Broccoli
- Basic White Rice
- Cherry Tomatoes
Chicken and Three-Color Pepper Stir-fry
You can spice up this versatile and colorful stir-fry by adding some hot pepper sauce such as sriracha to taste. To ensure fast and even cooking, cut the peppers into small, regular cubes.
- 1/2 Tbsp olive or other vegetable oil
- 3 Tbsp roughly chopped green onion
- 2 tsp peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1/3 each medium-sized red, green, and yellow sweet peppers, de-seeded and cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) chunks
- salt, for sprinkling
- 2 oz (60g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) chunks
- black pepper, to taste
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- lettuce or shiso leaves used as dividers, optional
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the green onion and ginger and stir-fry for 1–2 minutes until the oil is fragrant. Turn the heat up to the highest setting and add the peppers to the pan. Stir-fry with a spatula or long chopsticks. Sprinkle in some salt—this draws out moisture from the vegetables and cooks them a bit faster. Continue stir-frying for 4–5 minutes, until the peppers are cooked. Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan, and add the chicken to the exposed bottom. Leave for a couple of minutes, then turn over to cook the other side. Stir everything together, and add black pepper and soy sauce. Turn the stir-fry from the pan onto a cold plate so that it cools rapidly. When cooled, pack into the bento box, using the lettuce or shiso leaves as a divider. Ahead-of-time note: Cut up the vegetables and chicken the night before, so everything is ready to just cook. Be sure to keep the raw chicken stored separately from the vegetables for safety.
Instant Cabbage and Cucumber Pickles
Instant or overnight pickled vegetables are very popular in Japan. They are like dressing-less salads, and the salty, slightly sour crunch provides a nice contrast to other foods. They can be eaten immediately or kept stored in the refrigerator for 3–4 days.
- 1 large green cabbage leaf
- 2-inch-long (5 cm) English cucumber, sliced into thin rounds
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- squeeze of lemon juice
Cut out the tough vein of the cabbage leaf, and slice the rest into strips. Sprinkle the cabbage and cucumber with the salt, and massage well with your hands until the vegetables go limp. Let rest for at least 5 minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice. Squeeze out any excess moisture before packing into a bento box. I like to put the pickles in a bento divider cup or cupcake liner to prevent the flavors from mingling with other flavors in the box.
(On a semi-related note, I ordered mine from The Book Depository which offers free shipping for all orders.)