The fine art of stealth cooking at work.
November 26, 2012 8:30 PM   Subscribe

I occupy a large, remote office that is rarely visited by anyone with authority. It just occurred to me that I could actually cook my lunch in my office each day. What are some tips for stealthily cooking at work?

I have an electric tea kettle. I'm trying to think of unobtrusive kitchen appliances and healthy food combinations. My goal is to save money, eat healthily, not make a huge mess and enjoy the pleasure of a simple, hot lunch as I grade papers and write. I have to be somewhat discrete because students come by.

The office is divided by a separator, but nobody occupies the other half.

I'm trying to avoid anything complicated or too messy, like frying or butchering my own meat. I have a small refrigerator, but would consider upgrading to a small chest freezer if I could justify it.

I have spent the last few days thinking about rice cookers with steamer attachments, and freshly chopped vegetables.

There is a microwave down the hallway that belongs to the theater department. I can use it, if I'm not too overbearing about it. Their refrigerator is locked, and I'm afraid to think about what might be in it.

Oh, and there is a sink in the break room as well.
posted by mecran01 to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Bittman favors steaming vegetables in the microwave. I've done this with an artichoke and it's worked well, and made me feel very fancy. (The melted butter and roast garlic dipping sauce helped too--the garlic I roasted at home, though you could roast it at the office in a toaster oven if you wanted.)

Why do you need to be so sneaky? When I was in college, I wouldn't have been weirded out by someone cooking in their office, as long as it didn't seem like they were sleeping there.
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:45 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's not cooking per se, but I just bought this little crock pot and it's really cool. The food holder insert comes out and has its own lid, so you can leave the base at the office and transport the insert back and forth from home. You can even buy extra inserts.

Alas, unless you have 6-8 hours to whip up a mini-meal, it's really only going to be useful for heating up leftovers or a can of soup. It only has one setting, which corresponds to the Low setting on a regular slow cooker.
posted by cabingirl at 8:46 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just Bento has some good tips for cooking more than rice in a rice cooker. Examples
posted by Trivia Newton John at 9:15 PM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I guess I'm not seeing the advantage to doing real cooking at the office . . . wouldn't it be easier to cook it at home where all your cooking stuff is, then bring a Thermos or heat it up in the microwave?

I don't mean to be negative, though. I'm thinking a hot pot might be handy for this; I googled "hot pot cooking for dorm room" and got some promising results, like this.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:18 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's also Thermos cooking.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:20 PM on November 26, 2012

Toaster ovens are incredibly versatile. You would be able to cook bacon - use greased tinfoil, and bake it. Baking bacon helps get rid of the fat, and it's also a low-carb lunch. We also sometimes bake sardines in a mini-oven, too, which make for wonderful lunch.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:21 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Roger Ebert's The pot and how to use it.
posted by applesurf at 9:25 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

We also have a cassette heater we use to cook hotpot right at the dinner table, and we also take it camping. If you had a frying pan, you could try cooking Korean BBQ at work, or perhaps savory pancakes.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:31 PM on November 26, 2012

I used to keep a small George Foreman grill in my desk. I'd pull it out at lunchtime and make grilled chicken, or salmon, or turkey burgers.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:02 PM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

If your workplace is anything like mine, it's not the students you'd need to hide your cooking equipment from, it's the Health and Safety Committee.

Anyway, my vote's for toaster oven. When I lived in a place without a stove I cooked quite a few things successfully in my toaster oven:

-meatloaf (well, I was vegetarian so it was "meat" loaf, but it did work well in the toaster oven)
-chocolate chip cookies
-banana bread

Use a small Pyrex loaf pan for the lasagne, meatloaf, and banana bread. You could prep all that stuff at home and then bake it at work when you are ready. Get a baking tray (or use the one the oven comes with) for the cookies, and for open face tuna melts. If you don't like tuna, spread bread with refried beans and melt cheese over that.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:22 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a word on this: putting ovens, grills, toasters and so forth into the workplace may invalidate your employer's insurance. I'd be much more inclined to cook with things like steamers and microwaves, where you are basically heating liquid.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:52 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to bake small pies in my office toaster oven. I would line a small (single-serving) aluminum pie pan with crust, bake it, then add filling and the top crust and bake it again. I made blueberry pies and chicken pot pies this way.
posted by ryanrs at 1:24 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are near a window you could make a solar oven.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:03 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: #1 tip, courtesy of several dozen enraged office-wide e-mails over the course of my time working in offices:

Do not cook fish.

The apoplectic administrative assistants of the world never seem to know who has been cooking fish, but they know that someone has, and you get the general sense that if they ever find out for sure, justice will be swift and violent.
posted by brennen at 2:57 AM on November 27, 2012 [25 favorites]

About steaming vegetables in the microwave: It rocks! My mom, a multi-talented kitchen extraordinaire, never steams broccoli in a pot anymore but always always in the microwave. I'll be trying the artichoke recipe linked above though. Never did know what to do with artichokes.

My other microwave staple is potatoes: wash, score with a knife or poke with a fork in a number of places so steam can escape, and put in microwave. 2-3 minutes on one side, 2-3 minutes turned over - it depends on the size of your potato and power of the microwave. For additional variety, take it out a bit early, break it open, and cover in grated cheese (Colby Jack!), ham, broccoli, onion, etc.
posted by whatzit at 3:45 AM on November 27, 2012

I cannot, cannot second what brennen said enough.

Some kinds of fish, in the microwave, can stink up an entire floor and then one in both directions (this from experience). It can be kind of horrific and there will be full-on crusades for the one responsible.
posted by mephron at 3:52 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pretty much the smell of anything cooking is a distraction in an office building, notably because buildings these days are designed to recycle air and ductwork will transport cooking smells all over the place. However, if you can hack a little grumbling, this might be the perfect season for cooking with garlic on an electric griddle. It's great for colds and maybe even preventing flu.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beware of using anything not normally found in workplace staff kitchens, microwave oven is OK, any kind of open grill is probably not. You should probably ask for permission and find out what is allowed.

Ventilation is essential, even microwaves cause cooking smells and you will get accustomed to them but an infrequent visitor will notice the smell. But if there isn't an area clearly intended as a food preparation area (e.g. has fridge and sink) then you are pushing your luck.
posted by epo at 4:18 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Along with fish, steamed broccoli/cauliflower can make an entire office smell like fart. Be aware of the aromatic consequences of what you are planning on cooking.
posted by Fig at 4:50 AM on November 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

You can make everything from coffee/tea to biscuits with a Jetboil. I've used mine in my own kitchen a few times when the power goes out. One thing I can recommend NOT doing is starting a crockpot full of curry at your desk in the morning. By lunch time, you will have many friends/enemies.
posted by boba at 5:40 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Discretion is important because there is a universal human need to resentfully knock down anyone who is having more fun than you are, and department secretaries, custodians and adjuncts are having the least fun of anyone.

I'm pretty isolated, and am the sole member of my department surrounded by other departments, so they leave me alone. I have a window I can open. I don't cook at home because experience has taught me that my children will find and consume anything remotely delicious in about two days. Case in point, that bag of frozen taquitos that was supposed to last me for two weeks.

I'm thinking a steamer or rice cooker with a steamer attachment would be the safest, least odoriferous solution. Anything to do with hot oil is off the list. The toaster oven recommendations are intriguing.

Cooking the food at work means there will be an untouched, consistent supply of vegetables, chicken and shrimp, and no cooking interruptions from the five other members of my family. It also might be possible to get a cabinet from surplus to contain the supplies.
posted by mecran01 at 5:42 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would avoid any appliance that has exposed heating elements or that may be dangerous if forgotten about or accidentally touched ... say toaster ovens, toasters, hot plates and suchlike. Small microwaves, perhaps steamers would be your best bet. I would wager a microwave would be most versatile.
posted by edgeways at 5:47 AM on November 27, 2012

It sounds as though you prefer lunches of meat and vegetables, but just throwing this out there as another hot and simple option: One of the best offices I ever worked in kept a small sandwich press in the break room. I had grilled cheese for lunch EVERY DAY (plus a side of soup, salad, fruit, or veggies) and it was sheer heaven.
posted by anderjen at 6:48 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

In addition to the concerns about ventilation, etc. consider the electrical requirements of any appliance you bring in. Circuits in commercial/institutional buildings are usually robustly sized, but you still risk throwing a circuit breaker if you plug into a circuit with other loads on it. Also you might not have access to the breaker panel, leading to an embarrassing encounter with maintenance staff.

I support your clandestine efforts. If you have some money to throw at this consider a portable induction burner.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:54 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have access to any kitchen or kitchenette area anywhere in the building? I foresee a couple potential issues with cooking in your office: regulations against use of cooking-related devices being one of them; food prep surface hygiene if you're working with meat being another (a potentially complicating factor, depending on how stealthy you are, may be whether you have any co-workers or students who feel strongly about food prep issues eg. due to religion or animal rights beliefs). I'd recommend getting appliances that have some sort of safety cutoff switch in the event that they overheat, a tub for washing dirty dishes in and for transporting said dirty dishes to and from a sink for washing, and if you do have access to a kitchen or kitchenette, a little rolling bar cart that can carry your portable cooking appliances that you store in your office, along with your ingredients, and then you can have the convenience of cooking food at work, without risking making anyone upset or contravening any regulations.

As far as specific appliances go: if it were me and I weren't worried about regulations, I'd get a really nice, fancy rice cooker that has many settings (perhaps even one of the programmable ones) for curries, stews, soups, steaming, etc. And then I'd get a foreman grill or panini press for grilled sandwiches, vegis, etc. I'm currently in the middle of a two-month stint in Hong Kong (with minimal kitchen facilities available to me), and the selection of portable cooking appliances here is astounding. There are rice cookers, ranging from the very simple to the very complex and multi-function. There are steamers (which will pop popcorn, as well!). There are portable induction burner/plates. There are self-heating water/beverage/soup carafes. There are slow cookers and crock pots. There are hot pots. There are toaster ovens. I got myself a little mini hot pot/grill combo, since it was cheap and multi-purpose and I'm not planning on bringing it home with me. It has a heating plate inside a nice insulated setting, kind of like an electric kettle. There's a grill plate that can rest on the heating unit, or a pot; and it has an emergency cutoff switch to prevent over-heating. Since I got the cheapo one, it's functional, provided you don't need to cook anything quickly at higher heat. There's probably some sort of trade-off between maximum heat output and safety features. In North America you have a lot more options for implements designed to help you cook all manner of food in a microwave, as well. This was bigger in the '80s, I think. The microwave steamers work nicely (and can pop popcorn as well!), and growing up we had this little tray to help cook baked potatoes that worked pretty well, but I have never been a big fan of microwave cooking otherwise.
posted by eviemath at 8:04 AM on November 27, 2012

The crockpot and toaster oven are your friends here because you can buy frozen/refrigerated ready to cook items to keep in the fridge at work and use them as needed, or have raw ingredients at home that you prep but that the kids won't touch because they would have to actually cook!

When I was working long days at an offsite location I had both items and made the following:

leftovers in foil packets, grilled cheese and break and bake cookies in the toaster oven

meals in the crockpot - I would prep them at home the night before in a disposable crockpot bag, throw them on high when I got to the office and by lunch I had fresh, hot food like asian style country ribs or salsa chicken and I would warm up the leftovers in the toaster oven over the next few days

Other things to keep handy: Foil, disposable crockpot bags, tupperware, spatula, pot holders.
posted by prettymightyflighty at 11:39 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also invest in a lock, or perhaps some of those shock collars for animal training.

Either way, you can use them to keep your children away from the delicious things.

posted by mephron at 1:14 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cous cous just needs boiling water + 5 minutes. Like instant noodles but... classy.
posted by trialex at 1:57 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So I bought a small crockpot, but even with it turned to "high" it takes me four hours to cook vegetables and chicken. This is fine if I load it in the morning. However, I'm going to switch to a food steamer, which is faster. The tiny crockpot was only $10, and may still get some use if I get to work early enough.
posted by mecran01 at 11:43 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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