All recipes are for 2 servings unless noted. Oil is canola oil and salt is kosher salt.


Lunch, June 25, 2015

A bento can be the solution to making a lunch date with a busy friend. Forget about driving around to find a parking spot, hoping to get a table or waiting for food to arrive to fill your hungry stomach!

Sekihan is the preferred rice dish for celebratory occasions. My friend's son graduated from high school and is going to pursue his creative field in college from this fall. Although he was not the one eating the bento, I wanted to extend my good wishes for him and celebrate the occasion with my friend.

She had been having a hectic day since early morning, and I wanted to make a comforting meal including several items -- it is more fun to have different flavors, textures and colors, which in turn ensures a better nutritional balance. Having more than a few items means a great opportunity to finish up whatever you find in the fridge and freezer. It also means that advance prep is involved: for this bento, the Japanese butterbur and konnyaku noodle dishes were prepared the night before. Beet pickles were already sitting in the fridge. For sekihan, azuki beans were cooked during the day and rice was was soaked at night. Frozen salted salmon was thawed and desalinated overnight, hijiki seaweed was rehydrated, fava beans were blanched and peeled, and frozen shrimp were thawed in salted water and cleaned with potato starch. With these tasks done, the main jobs in the morning were cooking rice (mixing ingredients and pressing button of the rice cooker) and the omelet, taking care of main cooking with some dishes, and packing a bento box.

Smallish leaves of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a Pacific Northwest native tree, have become my favorite dividers for bento items. They stay crisp, do not add any smell or taste to dishes, and provide a pleasant light green background to the food. Among leaves that are edible raw, lettuce and salad greens are nice but tend to wilt in warm weather. This time I used purple shiso perilla leaves to wrap beet pickles in the center, and they functioned very well to prevent beet slices from tinting surrounding items. The shisho leaves themselves also worked as a small condiment for rice and other items.

Bento boxes are usually oblong or rectangular for portability. Since I was driving and there was no need to carry around the bento in a briefcase or backpack, the box above is a small oju or jubako lacquerwear with cover. Eating bento from oju reminds me of a family eating lunch at kids' school events such as annual athletic meetings in fall and gatherings with friends, colleagues or neighbors for hanami cherry-blossom viewing in spring. Possibly because of such associations, a bento instantly creates a picnic-like ambiance even when eating at friend's house, and we had a nice chat over lunch.

Tom? He was left behind to work at home. Sure, he had a bento too, exactly like the one we had but in a larger jubako. Filling and tasty, which I suspect resulted in him taking a nice nap with the dog and cats after lunch ... isn't that right, Tom?   

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