Bento fever has recently swept across the West, fueled not just by an interest in cute, decorative food, but by the desire for an economical, healthy approach to eating in these times of recession. A leading light in the popularization of bento has been Makiko Itoh, whose blog, Just Bento, boasts hundreds of thousands of subscribers, all of whom love her delicious recipes and practical bento-making tips.
Now, for the first time, Itoh's expertise has been packaged in book form. The Just Bento Cookbook contains twenty-five attractive bento menus and more than 150 recipes, all of which have been especially created for this book and are divided into two main sections, Japanese and Not-so-Japanese. The Japanese section includes classic bento menus such as Salted Salmon Bento and Chicken Karaage Bento, while the Not-so-Japanese section shows how Western food can be adapted to the bento concept, with delicious menus such as Summer Vegetable Gratin Bento and Everyone-Loves-a-Pie Bento.
In addition to the recipes, Itoh includes sections on bento-making equipment, bento staples to make and stock, basic cooking techniques, and a glossary. A planning-chart section is included, showing readers how they might organize their weekly bento making.
In a market full of bento books that emphasize the cute and the decorative, this book stands out for its emphasis on the health and economic benefits of the bento, and for the very practical guidelines on how to ensure that a daily bento lunch is something that can easily be incorporated into anyone's lifestyle. This is the perfect book for the bento beginner, but will also provide a wealth of new bento recipe ideas and tips for bento aficionados.
Salade Niçoise is a classic composed salad that originates from the sunny town of Nice in the south of France. It’s perfect for a summer bento lunch.
Makes 1 serving.
- 1 medium potato
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 6–8 quail eggs, or 1 chicken egg
- 2 tsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp Dijon-style mustard
Make ready three bento boxes: a large one to hold the lettuce and greens; a medium one for the potato, eggs, and tomatoes; and a small one for the tuna, olives, and dressing that fits inside the large one if possible. Wash, peel, and cut up the potato into ½ inch (1cm) cubes. Put the potato pieces in a small pan and add enough cold salted water to cover. Boil until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well. Coat lightly with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Carefully pierce the rounded end of each quail egg with a thin needle before boiling; this will make them easier to peel. Quail eggs only need to be boiled for 4 minutes to achieve the hard-boiled state. Peel the eggs. Make a simple vinaigrette by combining the rest of the olive oil, the vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in the small bento box. Mix well.
To Assemble This Bento
Put the potato and eggs in the medium bento box. Decorate with the cherry tomatoes. Put the well-drained tuna, the capers, and the olives in the small bento box with the vinaigrette. Fill the largest bento box with the salad greens and lettuce. Nestle the small bento box in the greens, and put on the lid. You may want to pack everything together with an ice pack in hot weather. When ready to eat, simply put all the salad components into the large bento box: the potato and eggs first, and the tuna mixture on top. Mix well and enjoy!
Prepare the potato, eggs, and tuna the night before and store in the refrigerator. Wash and dry the salad greens beforehand also. Pack the greens into the bento box in the morning for optimum freshness. If you eat a lot of salads, you could make vinaigrette in quantity and stock it in the refrigerator. I like to use a screw-top jar for this, and give it a good shake before using.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-fryYou 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 PicklesInstant 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.