Simple Bento Recipes

Life can get very hectic. So sometimes, it’s good to have simple recipes to fall back on for meals. The same rings true for bento! Sure, it’s great to have the time to make a fancy bento, but that’s not always the case. Here are some simple bento recipes, and most will use some pantry staples!

Easy Stuffed Onigiri (Rice balls)

Ingredients:
2/3 cups cooked short-grain rice (I use Nishiki brand. It HAS to be short grain. Long grain will not be sticky enough.)
2 tablespoons filling*
2 2″ thick strips of nori,optional.

Directions:
Divide rice into two equal portions. Using your hands, shape each portion into a triangle. Using a small spoon or your fingers, carefully care out a hole into the center of the rice ball. Pack the filling into the cavity and cover with rice. Wrap the nori strip over the base of the triangle, if using.

To make yaki onigiri, brush a small amount of oil into a small frying pan. Mix 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Place the onigiri into the frying pan and baste with soy sauce mixture. Cook until crispy on each side.

*NOTE: You can fill onigiri with anything you like. Traditional fillings include sweet bean paste, bonito flakes, and salmon. I like to mix tuna with a little soy sauce and sesame seeds. You can also use shredded chicken or beef, minced shrimp, or scrambled eggs.

Panko Crusted Salmon Croquettes

Ingredients:
1 5oz pouch boneless skinless salmon
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 egg
1/3 cup panko, plus an additional 1/2 cup
Olive oil, for frying

Directions:
Combine all the ingredients except for the 1/2 cup panko (place that in a shallow bowl). Shape mixture into four patties and coat each patty with the additional panko. Heat olive oil in a skillet. Place the patties in the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes on each side. Allow to cool completely before packing into bento.

5 Minute Yaki Udon

Ingredients:
1 package instant udon soup (discard flavoring packet or save for another use)
2 tablespoon each shredded carrot and diced onion
1/4 cup shredded cabbage
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
Olive oil, for sauteeing
Shredded Nori and sesame seeds, optional

Cook the udon noodles according to package directions. Combine the soy sauce, mirin, and sugar Meanwhile, sautee the carrot and onion until tender. Add cabbage and cook until soft. Add the cooked noodles and sauce, combine well and heat through. Garnish with nori and sesame seeds.

Sesame Broccoli

Place a handful of broccoli crowns* in boiling water. Once tender (but not fully cooked!) remove from water, blanch in cold water, and drain. Once cooled, sprinkle with a little sesame oil and sesame seeds.

*NOTE: Green beans, snow peas, or carrot matchsticks may be used as alternatives.

Pineapple Salad

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons minced pineapple
1 tablespoon minced apple (I use fuji or gala apples)
1 oz cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon vanilla yogurt

Combine all ingredients and mix well. This makes a delicious bento dessert!

You have any fast, simple recipes that you like to use in bento?

Bento: What to pack?

In my post “Bento: Where to Start?”  I said that bento is a tradition that started in Japan. This begs the question: should your bento lunch only be Japanese food?

Well, no.

While it is fun to pack an authentic Japanese lunch every now and again, it is definitely not a requirement! For one thing, many Japanese ingredients can be very hard to find if you don’t live in Japan or the U.S. West Coast.. For another thing, bento, like all meals, is about your personal tastes!

So what do you pack?

Anything you like, but be smart. Now, I’m not a nutritionist nor am I the ultimate bento guru, but I like to pack my bento based on what I call “The Food Pyramid Guide”. It goes a little like this:

* Grains (rice, noodles, or bread): 1 serving
* Proteins (meat, fish, tofu): 1 serving
* Vegetables: At least 1 serving
* Fruits: At least 1 serving
* Free (dairy, eggs, dessert): 1 serving

Obviously, you can pack whatever you like, but I find the best bento is a balanced one. And remember: a balanced meal is a colorful one! You want to make sure that you limit fattier items to one serving only. So I stick to one staple grain (usually rice), one meat, a “free” item (usually an egg or a cheese ball), and a variety of fruits and veggies. And if you feel that you have too much food in your bento, cut out your “free” item. If you feel you don’t have enough, you can always add edible garnishes like parsley!

But I just like to keep it simple for lunch!

We’ve all had those days where we just grab a sandwich and a bag of chips as we’re out the door. And there’s no saying that bento can’t be simple!  Anyway, why not take a little extra time to make your lunch special? Face it, the same-old-same-old brown bag lunch isn’t very exciting and it gets old. Try variations on a theme that will fit into bento. Do you like ham sandwiches? Instead of slapping some Oscar Meyer ham on white, try making a ham salad of finely diced ham, a little mayo, some dill relish, and a little shredded cheese. Spread it on baguette slices so it’ll fit in bento. Or try making a Hawaiian pizza hoagie by putting ham slices, pineapple rings, pizza sauce, and melted cheese on a hoagie roll and bake it until the cheese is melted. Slice the hoagie so it will fit into your bento.

As for potato chips, I say ditch them if you’re packing bento. I love potato chips as much as anyone but they are really just empty carbs and should be restricted to an every-once-in-awhile treat. Can’t break the chip habit in your lunch? Stick to Sunchips, pretzels, or baked potato chips. Better yet, learn to bake your own using sweet potatoes instead of the regular old spuds.

I still don’t have time!

Sure you do, though it might mean getting up a few minutes earlier or going to bed a few minutes later to prepare your lunch. Bento can be very quick and easy. If you are a rice person, make a big batch one day and separate it into 2/3 cup size portions, which can be frozen and thawed at a later date. Utilize leftovers. Buy items that can be individually thawed and used (like meatballs or pot stickers.) Use ready-to-eat items like cheese, fresh fruits, or raw veggies. I actually will be doing a post later on what I call “bento staples”, or easy items that can be kept on hand to pack for bento.

As for utilizing leftovers, I have done it!

Tuna casserole bento:

Bento made with egg foo yong and rice (made into yaki onigiri) from dinner the night before:

Remember, bento is about being creative! And I think it should also be about healthier eating habits. Packing a lunch that is nutritious, fun, and visually appealing might keep you from jonesing for a cheeseburger when it comes time to eat!

Bento: Where to Start?

What is bento?

Bento is what I like to call “the art of the lunchbox”. Technically, the word bento simply refers to a packed meal and in Japan, you can buy pre-packaged bento everywhere from department stores to train stations. Traditional Japanese bento will consist of rice, seafood, and vegetables. Some of it will not be carefully arranged to be cute or pretty, but all bento should be visually pleasing!

Bento is becoming a popular hobby outside of Japan.

What’s great about bento? How do you pack it?

Bento, for me, is a wonderful way to experiment with food and to explore new artistic horizons. A harmonious bento will make good use of color and shapes. Bento is also a great way to practice portion control and to get more fruits and veggies into your diet!

Another great thing about bento is that it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Sure, you can take some extra time to make your bento extra cute, but this is not a requirement. You DO have time for bento! It can easily be assembled in the morning before you leave or at night before you go to bed. Rice can be made in big portions and packaged into individual servings, which you can use any time. Veggies and fresh fruit can be quickly assembled. Leftovers from yesterday’s dinner can easily be utilized in a bento. Make sure that foods are properly divided in order to prevent sogginess or unwanted melding of flavors! You might want to keep sauces separate from rice, noodles, or bread to keep them from getting soggy. And that leads us to the next question…

What supplies do you need for bento? 

Firstly, a box.

Believe it or not, you can do bento without all the cute accessories. (But it is less fun that way!) A Gladwear container from your supermarket will suffice. But if you’re like me, you probably want a box that fits your personal tastes. These may be difficult to find in a store, depending on your location, but they can easily be found online. Try ebay or jlist. Bento boxes come in a variety of colors, shapes, and formats. You can buy multiple tiered boxes, boxes with built-in dividers, and bento that are custom-built for triangle onigiri or for sandwiches. Boxes can be made of plastic, aluminum, or wood. Please check the manufacturer’s instructions or with the seller to see if the box is microwave, dishwasher, or oven safe. Now, you might think that the box seems “small”, but don’t be fooled! You can easily fit a lot of food in if you can pack cleverly. If you still don’t think it will be enough food for you, take an orange or pudding pack along as well. 🙂

If your box is two tiers or more, it will probably come with an elastic strap and tote bag for carrying. Not all do, so if your doesn’t, they can be purchased separately.

Utensils

If you are packing a Japanese themes bento, chopsticks will probably be your go-to utensil of choice. You can find chopsticks sets that come with a case, which I would recommend. However, bento does not have to be Japanese themed; you can use whatever kind of food you like. Forks and spoons can also be bought to coordinate with your box and come in cases. If you don’t feel like buying a new fork, of course you may use one from home! 🙂 make sure that all the food you pack is bite sized or cut up so it can easily be eaten without the aid of a knife.

Food Cups, Dividers, and Sauce bottles/containers

Unless you plan on eating your bento right away, it is important to keep your food properly separated to avoid flavor contamination or sogginess. Dividers are called baran and while they can be purchased from specialty sites, you can get creative and use lettuce leaves, parsley, and the like. Muffin cups are an excellent bento item. They’re cheap, disposable, and can hold a good portion of food. Plus they easily fit in a bento! You will probably also want to buy separate containers for items like soy sauce, dressings, and mayo. You don’t want your food to get soggy! This way you can add the sauce when you’re ready to eat.

Fun Extras

Like I said, your bento doesn’t have to be “cute”, but if you want it to be, there are plenty of ways to make that happen! Rice molds, food picks and food cutters  are fun little touches and are usually pretty cheap. It’s a nice way to make your bento lunch special. 🙂

That seems like a lot!

It does, and the costs can add up! But besides high-end boxes, the supplies are usually fair in price and you are allowed to cut corners when it comes to supplies! Get creative and have fun!