Thursday, June 4, 2015

Week 18 - Bento Boxes

Week 18 of the 52 week cooking challenge was devoted to bento boxes. I didn't feel like making a traditional Japanese bento box, so I decided to give it a Mediterranean twist. This was definitely going to be a challenge, since bento boxes meant lots of different components all being prepared or cooked at the same time in our small kitchen. The key, in my opinion, was to have at least one component that was made in advance, like a cold salad. What I came up with for our bento box was shawarma-spiced grilled chicken strips over Israeli couscous with sides of spinach and feta, garlic sauteed mushrooms, chickpea sumac salad, and dolmas. 

First up, the shawarma-spiced grilled chicken strips.

We picked up this chicken shawarma spice mix when we visited the Middle Eastern Bakery and Grocery in Chicago last year, and I keep forgetting to use it. A Mediterranean grilled chicken seemed like the perfect time to finally try it out.

The ingredients for this component were:

- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts ($2)
- about a tbsp of chicken shawarma spice mix ($0.50)

Making this was pretty simple. I trimmed the chicken and cut it to a relatively uniform thickness, and then rubbed it with the spice mix. I let it sit with the rub for at least 15 minutes while doing other things and then threw them on the grill pan, cooked them until they seemed done, and then cut them into strips. They were a little overdone because I'm still pretty new at using our grill pan and it's hard for me to tell whether or not the chicken is just right. The middle sections were pretty good though, so I probably just overdid it by a matter of minutes.

Overall, this was fine, but we were expecting much more spices from the flavoring. You could definitely smell the shawarma spices, but the taste wasn't nearly as strong, which was a little disappointing. Maybe next time I'll try combining them with some yogurt or something to marinate, and then baking them, to see if the spices come through better.

Next, our side of spinach and feta.

This was inspired by a couple of things - one of the tapas at Kashkaval (except the Kashkaval version is chilled and I was planning to serve it warm) and the filling of spanakopita, one of my favorite Greek treats. I was hoping that it would be like eating spanakopita without the pastry outside.

The ingredients for this side dish component were:

- 16 oz bag of frozen chopped spinach ($1.49)
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced ($0.05)
- about 1 tbsp of dried chopped onion ($0.05)
- olive oil for sauteing ($0.20)
- salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste ($0.08)
- 1/4 cup of water ($0)
- about 1/2 cup of crumbled feta cheese ($1)

Making this dish was really easy. In a skillet, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, saute for about a minute, and then add the chopped spinach. (I didn't really thaw it much, just enough so that it wasn't a solid block.) Add the chopped onion, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and stir it all around. Add the 1/4 cup of water, stir again, and then cover. Continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes on medium heat, until everything is cooked and most (but not all) of the water has evaporated. Move the spinach mixture into a greased baking pan, add the feta cheese, and stir around. Bake at 350 degrees  for at least 10 minutes. (I baked it until everything else was done, so it was much longer than 10 minutes, but I tasted it at 10 minutes and it was fine. Longer doesn't hurt it though.)

This was great, and it really did taste just like the filling of spanakopita. We really loved this and it is so simple to make. We usually have all the other ingredients on hand, so as long as we have frozen spinach, this would be a really simple everyday side dish. We'll definitely make this again.

Next, garlic sauteed mushrooms.

Another simple side dish. This one wasn't really inspired by much, just an easy saute with flavors that I thought would go well together. I would have used fresh herbs but I used up all the parsley on the salad that I'll talk about next, and didn't feel like buying more just for this.

The ingredients for this were:

- 10 oz of white button mushrooms, chopped ($1.79)
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced ($0.05)
- olive oil for sauteing ($0.20)
- 1 tsp of dried parsley ($0.05)

I made the mushrooms in the same skillet as the spinach, since the bento box project was using up enough dishes as it was and I didn't want to fill up the sink even more when there was no need to. The flavor profiles for both were based on the same thing - garlic and olive oil - so if there ended up being a little spinach in the mushrooms, I didn't really care.

This was really simple. Heat olive oil over medium heat, add garlic and mushrooms, stir around for a bit, add some salt, cover and cook over medium heat for about 10 min or so, until most of the water released from the mushrooms has cooked off. Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley. Done. Super easy.

The mushrooms were good, but we expected them to be, since sauteed mushrooms are kind of hard to screw up. We make sauteed mushrooms somewhat regularly as an easy and healthy side dish, and this was good.

The last side dish, the "make ahead component," was this chickpea, onion, and sumac salad.

I had made this salad once before and absolutely loved it. It's based on this recipe for a chickpea salad with red onion, sumac, and lemon from the Kitchn. I knew from the first time I saw the recipe that I was going to love it and had to make it since I love chickpea salads and I love onions and I just generally love Turkish food. As soon as we got around to going to the Turkish grocery store and picking up a bottle of pomegranate molasses, it was time to make the salad. I could only hope that this second attempt at the salad would be as good as the first, since I hadn't written up a post or made any notes on the tweaks I made the first time. Oops.

The ingredients for the salad (slightly adapted from the original recipe) were:

- 3 cans of chickpeas, rinsed and drained ($2.39)
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced ($0.80)
- 1 tbsp of sumac ($0.15)
- 1 tsp of chili powder ($0.20)
- 1 tsp of salt ($0.05)
- 1/2 bunch of parsley, finely chopped ($0.50)
- a few tbsp of lemon juice ($0.30)
- a few tbsp of olive oil ($0.50)
- a few tbsp of pomegranate molasses ($0.50)
- salt and pepper to taste ($0.05)

The salad is pretty easy to make. Thinly slice the onion, add sumac + chili powder + salt, and then mix it all together with your hands. Add the drained chickpeas and the parsley, and stir it all together until mixed well. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses. (I didn't really measure, but just used about that amount, to taste.) Add a little salt and pepper (to taste, although it may not need much if any). Mix it well and taste. (I think I may have spritzed in a little more lemon juice at that point.) Chill for at least 12 hours. (Just remember when tasting that the flavor is going to get better overnight.)

Once again, we really liked this salad. Sumac is such a great spice, and I love adding it to onions especially, as they just work so well together. It was nice having a light and refreshing salad in the mix with the other bento box components. We would definitely make this again on its own. [As a side note, I can't believe it's taken me so long to put up this mostly written post that I have already made this again...]

Finally, the last components to finish it off, Israeli couscous and dolmas.

We had 3 sides in the spinach, mushrooms, and chickpea salad, and a main/protein in the form of chicken, but the bento box needed a couple more finishing items. First, a bed of whole wheat Israeli couscous to go with the chicken. We've been eating a lot of this tub of Israeli couscous and we love it. It's quick and easy - just saute the dry couscous in olive oil for a minute, add water, bring to boil, and simmer for about 10 minutes or so. 

Last, the dolmas (reviewed here). Since we didn't actually own any bento boxes, I tried to think of a way to "divide" the different components, and thought the dolmas would be good. They sort of worked for that purpose, although they didn't taste as good as the last set we got. The inside filling was a tad bit dry, unlike last time where they were better.

Overall, we really liked the bento box experiment and it was extremely filling. For $15.89, we had 2 giant Mediterranean dinners, plus a little bit of spinach leftover and enough chickpea salad for another meal. While not super cheap for a mostly vegetarian meal, it was far less than it would have been in any restaurant for that much food (probably made too much for dinner, honestly). While we did enjoy the project, I think in the future I would stick to just a couple of sides at most, as this is just too much work for a normal weeknight in a kitchen with as little counter and stove space as ours. Our favorite parts were probably the spinach and chickpea salad. Bento box project was a success!

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