There are the blues when you have no money. There are the blues when the political party you can’t stand wins the election. There are the blues when your children grow up and leave you behind. I’ve had all those blues. But right now, I have the brown bag blues (with apologies to Gil Scott Heron).
I never know what to eat for lunch at work. I am so uninspired. For a long time I just bought salads, but they were expensive, $7 or $8 a day, and came in disposable plastic containers that made me feel guilty even though I recycled them. Then I tried bringing leftovers, but when I did that, I had to cook when I got home since the leftovers were already gone, bringing on the I-don’t-know-what-to-make-for-dinner blues. Also, if I bring things to work that are too delicious, I start thinking about eating around 10:30 and have a hard time concentrating on work instead of the delicious thing I brought for lunch. I don’t like sandwiches or canned soups or frozen dinners, no matter how organic. I have no willpower, so if I bring something sweet like granola bars, I eat the whole box in two days. What I would really like is to go home and have my mother make me lunch but, alas, she is not available, having passed away in 1999.
I need bland, basic, repeating, predictable food, not fattening, but not so boring that I get tempted to go to the cafeteria downstairs and eat a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of macaroni salad. I am way past that stage of life; I need to stay sober.
At work there is a toaster, a microwave, a can opener, a refrigerator with no freezer, and a sink further down the hall in the big lunch room. Even though I am not particularly a neat freak, I dislike doing dishes at work. It just doesn’t feel hygienic in that underequipped communal kitchen space with that dubious sponge, so I find myself avoiding lunches that require much clean up. No tuna fish and mayonnaise, no elaborate chopped salads that require tossing and dressing on the job.
So what to bring to eat? Boring.
This week I decided to focus on ramping up my lunches instead of just eating corn tortillas with peanut butter, my totally uninteresting default lunch. I went shopping with the following thoughts in mind: I want food that isn’t messy, isn’t too exciting so I won’t be tempted to overeat, isn’t too fattening, doesn’t require me to lug lots of leaky containers from home to work every day, doesn’t cost too much, isn’t toxic, and doesn’t involve doing major amounts of dishes in the puny little sink down the hall where people I don’t know leave their disgusting coffee cups to soak. (In spite of my aversion, I do wash the plastic fork, knife and spoon that I swiped from the cafeteria in October, I am trying to make the Guinness World Record for the longest running use of a single set of disposable plastic ware.)
This is what I bought at the grocery store: blueberries, apples, bananas, pears. Five small sweet potatoes that can be microwaved and eaten directly from their skin with my plastic spoon. A microwavable bag of pre-washed green beans, although I worry about microwaving plastic bags, even the ones that say they are microwavable. Canned vegetarian low-fat refried beans for those nights I have to work late and need to eat dinner at my desk (sad, I know, such is the life of a government lawyer during legislative season). Canned butter beans for the same reason and because I like butter beans. Corn tortillas (don’t forget that they must be passable corn tortillas and not nasty northeastern tortillas) and hot sauce to go with my canned beans. Peeled baby carrots and hummus. A jar of peanut butter just in case. Some small cans of fruit in “extra lite” syrup instead of candy bars or granola bars because I do have moments of weakness in which I have to have something sweet or else some seriously bad legal work will result. A box of matzo, because nothing can kill the appetite like a piece of matzo. Some compostable paper plates and bowls made in the USA, not China.
I also have a standard office snack that I keep on hand. I discovered several years ago that you can microwave popcorn in a brown bag with the end folded over and shut with two staples . The staples should be more than three inches apart. The staples don’t spark and it works well, so I keep some brown bags and popcorn in my office food cabinet for emergency use. It makes seriously uninteresting popcorn, since there is no oil, but you can add a little parmesan cheese for flavor. I don’t bother, since flavor makes me want to eat more. I try to stay away from tantalizing.
And, as a special treat, in order to shake off the brown bag blues, I am making soy sauce drenched seitan this weekend and dividing it into lunch-sized portions to bring in with me each day in a microwavable glass storage container that I will wash when I come home at night. My coworker, Tana, turned me on to homemade seitan, so I have made a couple of batches since then and have decided that it is currently the oomph that I need in my brown bag in order to avoid running down to the cafeteria for supplemental, expensive, bad-for-me food. Everything else I will drag in on Monday and replenish as needed the following week.
For now, seitan is the anti-depressant, even though it kind of looks like poop. It can be wrapped in a tortilla, if necessary, but is fine plain too, straight out of its glass two-cup container. It will not do for the gluten-intolerant, but for me, it is great. And, as a bonus, my husband likes it. In fact, he ate seitan with barbecue sauce and sipped a small glass of scotch during the football play-offs this year instead of eating chicken wings and beer like his fellow football bros. I was impressed.
If anyone has any suggestions for what I should eat for lunch when I get tired of seitan, please let me know.
This is Tana’s seitan recipe, which is a great ingredient in stir fry. Four ounces of seitan is only 114 calories so it is good for my diet too!
RECIPE: TANA’S HOMEMADE SEITAN
1 cup wheat gluten
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ginger powder
1 teaspoon dried, minced onion
– Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. In a measuring cup, combine ¾ cup water or vegetable broth with two tablespoons of soy sauce.
– Stir liquids into dry ingredients, form into a ball.
– Knead on board 15 times. Allow it to rest 5 minutes. Knead another 15 times. Form it as best you can into a rubbery slab about ¾ inch high. Cut into 2 inch slices.
– Bring a medium pot of vegetable broth with a quarter cup of soy sauce to a boil. Add one sliced onion and as much chopped garlic as you like to the broth.
– Gently simmer seitan slices in the broth for one hour. Slices will increase in size.
STORAGE: Store in the pot liquid for up to a week in the refrigerator or drain and pan fry or stir fry or bake with whatever you want.