A bag of limp salad. A plastic container of room-temperature leftovers. Nothing at all.
If any of these sound like your typical workweek lunch — consumed mindlessly in front of your computer — you might be in need of some help. Weeks into working from home (for those who are fortunate enough to be able to do so), fledgling home cooks are having to fend for themselves at lunchtime, beholden only to what's in the fridge, with nary a food truck or skyway cafe in sight.
Consider this time at home, working steps away from your own kitchen, as an opportunity to rethink the midday meal. Requiring only a creative raid of your pantry, you can turn a boring noontime bite into the centerpiece of your day.
We asked Twin Cities chefs to tell us what's in their pantries, and how they'd use those items to make a run-of-the-mill lunch into something extraordinary. Take their ideas and run with them using whatever you have on hand. These recipes are a launchpad.
Don't have olives? Use up an open bottle of capers or pickles or pepperoncini. Don't have corn tortillas? Flour works. If you like heat, add more spice, or some hot sauce.
It might not replace skyway pizza, but these recipes could change your mind about ordinary lunch.
Chef and owner, Chelles' Kitchen, and culinary educator, the Good Acre.
In her kitchen: Almond butter, bread, bananas.
What she made: Grilled Nut Butter and Banana Sammy With Date Caramel Sauce.
Through the Good Acre, Cunningham trains school-lunch staffs how to cook with farm-fresh ingredients, so she knows what makes a good lunch. Peanut butter and jelly might be a school cafeteria fixture, but done her way — griddled, with banana in the middle — it's a craveable meal for any setting. Made with sprouted ancient grain bread and toasted in butter (vegan for her), "these sandwiches are my go-to when I want something sweet, but also nutritious." Then she takes it up another notch, with a faux caramel sauce made from puréed dates (or other dried fruit) and coconut cream. She'll drizzle the sauce over the sandwich or just dunk the wedges right in.
For her, lunch is all about ingenuity — and a little planning. She'll make mini pizzas out of flour tortillas. Or cook up a big batch of greens and grains to repurpose in various ways. It doesn't have to take long. "I'll put a little effort in once or twice a week, and then I can quickly put something together in 10 to 15 minutes," she said.
Grilled Nut Butter and Banana Sammy With Date Caramel Sauce
Note: You will need a cast-iron skillet. From chef Lachelle Cunningham of the Good Acre.
• Butter for grilling
• At least 2 pieces of your favorite bread (she uses sprouted ancient grain bread)
• Nut butter (peanut, almond, sunflower, etc.)
• 1 banana, sliced
• Date Caramel Sauce (recipe follows)
Directions: Heat cast-iron skillet over medium heat and then add about 1 to 2 tablespoons butter to melt. Coat the bottom of the pan with the butter and then add your bread. Cunningham likes to swipe the bread around in the pan to soak up the butter. Allow the bread to brown and then remove it from the pan. Allow it to cool slightly and then spread nut butter on both slices, putting it on the toasted sides only.
Add 1 to 2 tablespoons more butter to the pan to melt, spreading around in the pan. Place the bread back in the pan with the untoasted side down and the nut butter side up. Swipe the bread around in the pan to soak up the butter and allow the toast to brown. Then remove it from the pan with the nut butter side up. Place the banana slices on one of the pieces of toast and then enclose with the other piece of toast with nut butter. Slice the sandwich in half and drizzle the Date Caramel Sauce over it or serve on the side for dipping.
Date Caramel Sauce
Makes about 2 cups
Note: Cunningham suggests that 1 cup of nut butter could be added to the sauce, if desired.
• 1/4 c. coconut oil, melted
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
•8 oz. pitted dates, coarsely cut
• 1/3 c. coconut cream
• 1 pinch salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange, optional
• Juice of 1 orange, optional
• Water, optional
Directions: In a blender, combine the melted coconut oil, vanilla, dates, coconut cream, salt, orange zest and juice. Process, adding water until it reaches a desired thickness in consistency and viscosity.
Chef and managing partner, Handsome Hog, the Fitz and other St. Paul restaurants.
In his kitchen: Boxed macaroni and cheese, rotisserie chicken.
What he made: Fancy Mac and Cheese.
"My lunch tip is to always buy the whole rotisserie chicken from your favorite grocery store," Sutherland said. "They range from $3.99 to $11.99 depending on your spot. Throw it in the fridge, then pick the meat off the bones and you have chicken meat for days." He'll use the chicken in sandwiches and soups, add it to ramen noodles or stovetop stuffing.
Sutherland's favorite application is macaroni and cheese, and by jazzing up the boxed stuff with full-fat dairy, such as sour cream and cottage cheese, it "helps bring a side dish to a restaurant-quality meal." He tops the hot dish with a dash of hot sauce and those fried onions in a can.
Fancy Mac and Cheese
• 1 (7.25-oz.) box macaroni and cheese
• 4 tbsp. butter
• 1/4 c. sour cream
• 1/4 c. cottage cheese
• Broccoli florets, fresh or frozen
• Shredded rotisserie chicken
• Salt and pepper
• Hot sauce, such as Cry Baby Craig's
• Canned fried onions, such as French's
Directions: Cook the noodles according to package directions; drain. To the noodles, add the butter, the mix's cheese powder and enough milk to dissolve the cheese. Fold in the sour cream and cottage cheese.
Meanwhile, steam the broccoli until crisp-tender; then drain.
Shred the rotisserie chicken and cut into as many bite-size pieces as you wish to use. Add to the pasta, along with the broccoli and a dash of hot sauce. Top with the fried onions and either serve immediately or heat in the oven at 350 degrees until hot throughout.
Chef and owner, Fhima's Minneapolis, executive chef for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx.
In his kitchen: Canned tuna, potatoes, olives.
What he made: Baked Potato Niçoise.
"Lunch had become the afterthought," said Fhima, about the meal's place within the American workday. "If you think about it, in France, lunch is a big deal. In Italy, lunch is a big deal." Maybe we need to change how we eat, he said. "Wouldn't that be awesome if we just started a culture of lunch here?"
France is on Fhima's mind with his pantry recipe for the Riviera classic, the Niçoise salad. He puts a spin on it by stuffing a mixture of tuna, chopped fresh vegetables and briny olives into a hollowed-out baked potato. "Then you just take the potato with your hand and just eat it."
Baked Potato Niçoise
Note: "Everybody has eggs, everybody has potatoes, everybody has tuna. The potato becomes a bed that houses these beautiful ingredients. If you don't have olives, you add capers; you don't have capers, you add pickles or something fermented," Fhima said. You will need to cook the eggs and green beans or asparagus in advance.
• 1 large russet potato
• 2 (5-oz.) cans or 4 (2.6-oz.) packets tuna fish, drained
• Olive oil
• Vinegar or juice from 1 lemon
• Tomatoes, diced, optional
• Jalapeno or bell pepper, diced, optional
• Dijon mustard, to taste, optional
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Anchovies, whole or chopped, optional
• Olives, capers or pickles, chopped
• 3 eggs, medium to hard-cooked, sliced
• Green beans or asparagus, cooked
• Red onion, sliced thin, optional
Directions: Poke the potato with the tines of a fork several times. Bake the potato at 400 degrees until you can pierce it easily with a fork, about 45 minutes or more, depending on its size. Cut the potato in half. Remove some of the middle (you can nibble on it later).
Mix the tuna with some olive oil and vinegar. Stir in the tomatoes, jalapeño, mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Place the mixture inside each half of the potato.
Top with anchovies, olives, eggs, green beans and onion.
Chef and owner, Union Hmong Kitchen and the forthcoming Vinai.
In his kitchen: Leftovers, red curry paste, canned coconut milk.
What he made: "Leftover" Red Coconut Curry.
If you don't already have red curry paste in your refrigerator, you should, says Vang. "Curry paste can last forever," he said. "I don't think I've ever known a curry paste to go bad." He'll throw a dollop into almost anything, and uses it like tomato paste — cooking it down with his aromatics until they turn a dark amber. (If you don't have the curry paste, a quick alternative is to cook down minced garlic and ginger with some paprika and a dash of cayenne or other ground chile.)
Vang keeps his pantry stocked with items from the questionably named "ethnic foods" aisle at the supermarket. "Doesn't all food come from all cultures?" he said, laughing. "It hurts my heart." That's usually where the coconut milk is stocked, and a can of it, in combination with red curry paste and any vegetables that have been lingering in the refrigerator, makes an easy curry.
"Curry is a base food, basically," Vang said. "You can make the dish out of almost anything."
Leftover Red Coconut Curry
Makes 4 servings
Note: If you make a lot, "it's like chili in that it tastes better the next day because all those flavors incorporate." Adjust the ingredients to your tastes. From chef Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen.
• 1/3 c. onions, chopped
• 1/3 c. carrots or other vegetables, chopped
• 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 tsp. garlic, chopped
• 1 tsp. fresh ginger, chopped
• 1 tsp. lemongrass, chopped, optional
• 1 tbsp. red curry paste (such as Mae Poy brand)
• 1 (8-oz). can coconut milk
• 3/4 c. chicken stock, optional
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Frozen vegetables, optional
• Leftover protein, such as chicken, fish, pork, shrimp or a mix
• 1 tsp. fish sauce, optional
• Optional garnishes: fresh cilantro sprigs; sliced green onion; lime wedges
• Leftover cooked rice
Directions: In a medium pot or sauce pan over medium-high heat, cook onion, carrot or other vegetables in about a tablespoon of vegetable oil. When vegetables soften, add garlic, ginger and lemongrass (if you have it). Stir and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add red curry paste to the pot and stir to coat vegetables. Allow the paste to darken, about 30 seconds more.
Pour in the coconut milk. To thin the liquid, add chicken stock as desired. Season with salt and pepper and allow mixture to simmer, about 5 minutes.
Add frozen vegetables and leftover protein, and warm through, another 2 to 3 minutes.
Turn off heat and stir in optional fish sauce.
Warm leftover rice and ladle curry over the rice. Top with cilantro and green onion, as desired. Finish with a spritz of lime.
Chef and co-owner, Hola Arepa and Hai Hai.
In her kitchen: Canned chickpeas, corn tortillas.
What she made: Spiced Chickpea Tacos.
"During the pandemic, it seems like every day has been Taco Tuesday at our house," said Nguyen, who co-owns her Minneapolis restaurants with husband Birk Grudem. "You'd be amazed by how many quick meals you can get out of a 36-pack of corn tortillas sitting in your refrigerator and they stay good for a really long time." Nguyen likes the locally made 6-inch tortillas from Los Maizales or La Perla. At breakfast, she'll stuff them with soft scrambled eggs and any condiments and vegetables she has around. For lunch or dinner, she fills them with leftovers, "like Indian food or that grocery store rotisserie chicken you've been picking away at."
Or the quarantine staple, canned chickpeas. She wakes them up with whatever inspires her from the spice rack, and tops them with an assortment of condiments from the refrigerator.
Spiced Chickpea Tacos
Makes 6 large tacos
Note: "Raid your spice cabinet to see what you have to work with." From chef Christina Nguyen of Hola Arepa and Hai Hai restaurants.
• 1 to 2 tbsp. oil or butter
• 1 small onion, diced
• 2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 to 1.5 tbsp. ground spices (make a mix of curry, garam masala, cumin, coriander, ginger, paprika, turmeric, etc. Example: 1/2 tbsp. curry powder, 1/2 tbsp. cumin, 1 tsp. garam masala, 1/2 tsp. coriander)
• 1 small tomato, diced
• Jalapeño or other pepper, diced, optional
• 1 (15-oz.) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (save the liquid for aquafaba recipes)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/2 c. chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
• Fresh cilantro, chopped, optional
• Corn or flour tortillas
• Garnishes, all optional: diced raw vegetables such as onion, tomato; sliced raw vegetables such as radishes; chopped herbs such as cilantro; condiments such as hot sauce, salsa, chutney; pickled vegetables; lime wedges; sour cream, cheese, plain yogurt
Directions: Heat up a small pot on medium heat and add oil or butter. Add onion, garlic, and ground spices.
Once the onion is translucent, add tomato, jalapeño, chickpeas, 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir. Add water or stock to cover chickpeas, about 1/2 cup. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes until chickpeas are soft. Stir occasionally and add more water or stock if it's getting too dry. Adjust spices and salt and pepper to taste, and stir in cilantro.
Figure out sauces and toppings while chickpeas are cooking. Nguyen likes to add finely diced raw onion and tomato, fresh cilantro, sliced radishes, some kind of hot sauce, salsa, tamarind chutney or pickled vegetables and a squeeze of lime. "Savory, a little sweet/tangy and herbaceous are good notes to hit."
Heat up a pan or two on medium-high. Place a cold tortilla on each of the pans and flip them with your fingers or tongs every couple of seconds until they become pliable. Don't overcook by letting them get crispy, otherwise they'll get even harder as they cool. It should only take about 10 seconds to warm each tortilla. (Alternatively, warm them directly in the flame of the burner.) Wrap heated tortillas in a clean cotton towel to keep warm while working. Fill each tortilla with a couple spoons of chickpeas and all your fixings.