A Vegetarian Salad Cookbook Doesn't Help This Time, Oddly....
February 28, 2019 4:55 AM   Subscribe

I begin a new job on Monday (yay!) and as part of my transition-into-the-new mindset, I'm doing some batch cooking to prepare myself for packing lunches in the morning. I need ideas for the protein part of my lunches.

I have one of those bento-inspired boxes that has separate portion containers for different meal components; I find that helps me with balancing my meal and doing portion control (plus it's easier to pack when you're half-awake: "fill this bit with salad, fill that one with rice, blerg"). So I usually do some simple batch-cooking at the beginning of the week, with things that can just live in the fridge all week and I dip into them when packing my lunch in the morning. My beloved Moosewood cookbooks have me more than sorted for the veggie and grain portions, but as for the protein....not so much.

In the past I've just roasted up a whole tray of chicken wings and had that be it, but that sometimes got monotonous. So I'm looking for other ideas. I thought of hard-boiled eggs, or grilling a couple chicken breasts in different marinades and then slicing them up. But that's still just three items on the menu. Lemme know your ideas for others!
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I make large batches of seitan and eat it throughout the week. My recipe is simple and I braise it for an hour so it comes out with a light brown gravy/reduction, I consider it finger food at that point.

There are other good options from Asian cuisines: pork sung aka pork threads/ floss keeps on the shelf for years, easy to add a bit to anything. Check your local Asian market for all kinds of preserved proteins, including soy, gluten, seafood etc.

Canned sardines are among the most environmentally ethical and healthiest animal proteins, and inexpensive too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:03 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

So one thing I found that really helped with the monotonousness of food cooked on weekends is to make a couple of sauces as well. It sounds like a frivolous and unnecessary part of the meal, but it can really transform that chicken wing or hard-boiled egg into something you want eating. There are tons of potential sauces out there but I've found the following to be really helpful: aioli (from scratch if you like or fake aioli made by adding garlic and lemon juice to some storebought mayonnaise), herb mayo, romesco sauce, chimichurri, garlic tahini sauce, zhoug (spelled lots of different ways) - only if you like spice, mint chutney (Indian-style).

Another idea is to cook proteins that hold up well over a week. Chicken wings are a pretty good example, but the best part of them (the skin) - tends to get flabby. I like boneless skinless chicken thighs cooked in the oven, very simply poached chicken breast (this I don't reheat as that dries it out but use only for salads or with one of the above sauces), hard-boiled eggs. If you have an instant pot or slow cooker, salsa chicken (essentially chicken thighs plus salsa) is great. Anything braised works well - so lamb stew or beef stew. You could make a big batch of meatballs - chicken, pork, or beef or a combo - and again combine with sauces in various ways - over a grain salad, in a pita, in a sub.
posted by peacheater at 5:09 AM on February 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Ack, don't want to threadsit, but realized I left out some vital info:

My container is a little on the leaky side, so stews or anything that would need to be heated and kept hot will not work, i'm afraid. I do have a second container that works for that purpose, but I use that if I have leftovers from dinner that I'm taking as a lunch (a lot easier to just round that out with one of the existing salads I've already made).

Also for safety's sake I'm sticking to things that can be eaten cold or at room temperature and don't require being heated up. Meatballs definitely are an option, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:16 AM on February 28, 2019

It sounds like you have typical bento limitations. My favourite bento cookbooks are The Just Bento Cookbook and its sequel. They're full of protein options that can be refrigerated or frozen and defrosted over the course of the morning. It's Japanese cooking, but fairly simple and flavours can be easily adjusted.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 5:32 AM on February 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

We pack Little eirias’ lunch in reasonably similar ways. Some proteins we go to regularly: nuts, cheese, Greek yogurt (not sure if that’s too liquid for your container). We keep it non-monotonous by mixing in various dried fruits with the nuts, or varying the kinds of cheese (local hippie co-op has random ends of interesting cheese you can buy for like a dollar), or putting fruit in the yogurt. Other ideas - hummus, hard salami (put on crackers or roll up with cheese).
posted by eirias at 5:45 AM on February 28, 2019

Chickpeas. Lentil or bean "salads". Blocks of cheese. Beef sticks/jerkies/sausages.
posted by Hypatia at 6:01 AM on February 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

chicken salad. buy or broil chicken breast meat. can go the mayo/celery/diced pickle route or many other tasty variations (sweet curry + grape, peanut sauce etc.) make a batch at start of week, use over next few days. Some combinations (esp if you use dairy instead of mayo) best used no more than 3 days out.

insider secret: easiest way to shred chicken meat for salad is in a stand mixer.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:01 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does it need to be "just protein" or "has a good amount of protein?" My first thought was a pan of stuffed shells.
posted by saladin at 6:05 AM on February 28, 2019

Hard cheese in cubes
Shrimp on a bed of something that starts frozen and thaws for lunch
Nuts. All the nuts.
Pasta with beans and not much sauce
Rolled up lunchmeat and sliced cheese or string cheese or cheese logs
Baked tofu
Casseroles like baked ziti, mac n cheese, adding meat is optional
Edamame with or without the shell
Baked cheese bread or mini calzones or mini empanadas
Dumplings with meat filling instead of veggie

Also you can get tiiiiny squirt bottles to fill with your own thin sauce and tuck in next to your protein and/or salad. Often they are in a cute animal shape. Kind of a pain to clean but not impossible.
posted by bilabial at 6:13 AM on February 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Trader Joe's flavored baked tofu is good.
posted by something something at 6:29 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

My wife makes quinoa and roasts broccoli and sweet potatoes. Mix that with quinoa and add a little tahini (Goddess) dressing.

Just noticed she blogged and did a video on it too.
posted by terrapin at 6:41 AM on February 28, 2019

I really like the thin pork chops that are sometimes pre-seasoned (they might have some specific name that I'm unaware of....) They pan fry up quickly, and reheat nicely.
posted by Fig at 6:50 AM on February 28, 2019

I like top round, marinated in something garlicky, grilled, then sliced. Can be served cold on salads, in fact that is what I'm doing today!
posted by zoetrope at 7:57 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Black beans, corn, and bell peppers in a vinaigrette.
posted by metasarah at 8:37 AM on February 28, 2019

Season up a pork tenderloin and roast that. Slice it, and bring 3-4 slices each day. I find that I prefer to eat it cold.

The flavor of tenderloin can be a bit bland, so it definitely needs some help. There are a bunch of tenderloins that are pre-marinated, but I don't usually buy those. You might like them, and they might work great for this purpose.

I usually salt & pepper and heavily season my tenderloin about 8 hours before cooking. Sear it in a pan on the stove, then roast until it hits 145. Add some chicken stock to the pan before roasting, to add a bit of moisture.

This is the most recent recipe I used for tenderloin. It was delicious, and the apples were amazing too!
posted by hydra77 at 9:23 AM on February 28, 2019

Just "best-answered" a bunch of ideas; please note, to redirect, that I am set for salads (so the black beans/corn/peppers is not what I am looking for, for instance).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 AM on February 28, 2019

Can you incorporate proteins into your grains or salads?
- Fried rice, with added peas, eggs, and thinly sliced meat / tofu for protein
- salad made with plain greek yogurt
- Quinoa or brown rice as the grain
- red beans and rice, with ham or sausage either mixed in during cooking or eaten separately on the side
- mozzerella-forward salads
- inarizushi (fried tofu skins stuffed with rice)

If you have access to an Asian supermarket, you can explore the world of tofu!
- Beancurd knots/sticks can be stir-fried with veggies (Or you can simmer beancurd knots in a broth to cook/soften and then dip in a sauce when serving).
- My family loves tofu "gan" (Serious Eats calls it 5-spice tofu?) Once you slice it, you can just eat it plain, or stir fry with it. It has more protein than tofu since it contains less water.
- You can also make a tofu "salad" (though my family's eaten this as a main, accompanied with rice). Basically firm silken tofu, sliced into cubes, drizzled with soy sauce and a bit of sesame oil (optional). Sliced thousand-year egg (preserved salted duck egg, can be found at Asian supermarkets), green onion, and cilantro are on top as garnish.
- Use tofu skin as a wrap for ground pork & mushrooms! One of my personal favorite homemade dishes.
posted by devrim at 9:57 AM on February 28, 2019

Make up a crockpot of pulled pork on the weekend (freezes beautifully).
Fry up steak strips or I just found pre-seasoned fajita meat at my local market.
posted by sarajane at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Quesadillas! I picked up some Oaxacan cheese and will do sweet potato and black bean for dinner tonight. I’ll cook the beans with some olive oil, onion, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Smear the sweet potato on one side of the tortilla, cover with beans, top with cheese. Cook in your preferred quesadilla cooker.

I prefer to pack my sour cream and optional guacamole for lunch quesadillas but you can cook them inside.
posted by bilabial at 10:40 AM on February 28, 2019

Corning makes this. It is great for soups and stews for microwaving at work. They sell in three packs at Home Depot at times. Home made hummus is great for lunch protein with pita and additions.
posted by Oyéah at 11:51 AM on February 28, 2019

I have been batch baking chicken with different marinades. I prefer it cold, so that helps. This week I did 4 breasts--two with a barbecue rub and 2 with an Italian dressing-ish one. But also have done jerk, mojo criollo, yogurt-tandoori, teriyaki, korean bbq, chile-lime, etc. etc. It's really easy if you use a mostly pre-prepared marinade.
posted by Stewriffic at 12:30 PM on February 28, 2019

Stuff made with chickpea flour (there being a variety of options for this in the category of Indian Street food?

If rice is one of your lunch components, then lentils or other beans would, as they used to say, provide a complementary protein. Again, Indian cuisine provides a variety of dal options, hummus is the same idea but from a different region of the world, or I find that lentils take on a marinade flavor quite well (and then you can switch up the flavor for variety).

A mix of nuts and cheese could also work if you were kind of into them but maybe not keen on just nuts or just cheese (and then you can play around with the specific nut/cheese combo, to make it feel like you're getting more variety).
posted by eviemath at 1:25 PM on February 28, 2019

Haloumi, pan fried in slice then dressed with a bit of lemon juice.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 3:22 PM on February 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stewriffic - assuming you have a general baked-chicken-in-marinade recipe, can you post it? That's EXACTLY up my alley there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:00 AM on March 1, 2019

I don't have recipes exactly. Essentially I look for bottled marinades or pre-made seasoning packets/bottled rubs. I look to the "international" section of a standard grocery store or in the seasonings/spices section of a cuisine-specific grocery.

This week my marinades were Ken's light Italian salad dressing and a dry rub from Trader Joe's that has coffee in it. Another would be soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sugar. Tandoori would be yogurt, ginger, garlic, maybe some kind of tart citrus and a premade spice mixture that I picked up at an Indian food store. Jerk would be Badia Jerk seasoning with some neutral oil and tart citrus. There are other ready-made jerk pastes at grocery stores that are probably better, but the Badia works and is cheaper.

I put breasts in individual bags to marinate and then bake at 400ºF until they read 165ºF, at about 22 minutes. Sometimes I bake them alone and sometimes I bake them on the same sheet pan. This week I baked the BBQ one alone and then the Italian dressing one I cut up new potatoes and cherry tomatoes with a few whole garlic cloves and the extra marinade. The chicken finished before the tomatoes and potatoes were sufficiently roasty, so I took it out early.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:35 AM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The "bake at 400 for about 22 minutes" bit was the bit I was wanting to know, so that's perfect.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:58 PM on March 1, 2019

So, I would actually like to amend that 400 for ~22 minutes statement to emphasize that it's a guideline. I'd also say that 22 minutes is likely insufficient for a whole boneless skinless breast if you start from refrigerator temperature.

I cooked some chicken breasts last week following roughly that formula. Despite also measuring temperature at 165ºF, they seemed underdone to me. They were fine, safety-wise, but I didn't like the texture.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:41 AM on March 30, 2019

I've actually since found a crap-ton of "easy chicken marinade" recipes with a more definitive cooking time and temperature and have been going by that yardstick (I think it's something like 425 for 25 minutes?) and it's been working perfectly. So much so that this weekend I'm going to invest in the "family pack" size pack of chicken breasts and make up about ten little freezer baggies stashed in the fridge, like they recommend - two chicken breasts last me about a week and a half, trading off one and then the other flavor, and if I have a variety-pack of pre-marindaded breasts in the freezer it'll be a piece of cake that when one's getting low, I just pull another breast out of the freezer the night before, and pop it in the oven when I get home from work the next day so it's ready to be added to the rotation.

This is exactly what I was looking for. Cheers.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on March 30, 2019

To build on the time suggestion for chicken or any other meat cooking, I am in love with my probe thermometer. It’s got a long cord and plugs into the little base. I set the goal temperature and tell it to alarm. Then I pop the probe into the thickest part of the meat and walk away, but not too far away.

I got mine at Marshall’s or home goods or someplace but amazon also sells them. Less than $10 and so much less guess work.

For bonus, you can cook cake and bread by temperature also, so there’s altogether less oven fiddling in my life. For cake etc just put the thermometer in when things have started to set a bit.

Also nearly any salad dressing is a good marinade for some kind of meat or tofu.
posted by bilabial at 6:53 PM on April 6, 2019

« Older creating space.   |   Can a car matchmaker help me fix this mistake? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.