Food: Square meals

Portable lunches that pack a punch
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It all began when my husband arrived home to say that an unusually tall youth had arrived in the office for a summer's work experience, arranged by his father to ready him for the world of grinding employment. The office hours are eight-to-eight and there is no lunch break. Sensibly, the youth turned up each morning with a lunch box.

It wasn't long before my husband took a sideways glance and decided that this wasn't such a bad idea. The youth's lunchbox was prepared by his uncle, with whom he was staying. When it transpired that this uncle was Matthew Fort, food editor on the Guardian, my husband took even more interest in what the young man was eating. Before I knew it, I had been cajoled into seeing the lunch box as some kind of challenge. So that I, too, would stand on the doorstep in the light of dawn and dispatch him with a wave and, lovingly packed up, the victuals that would see him through the day.

My first attempts to get the scheme going were aborted. I set the alarm half an hour early, duly awoke and, realising the task that lay ahead, I thought "forget this for a lark", and went back to sleep. Slowly, it dawned on me that I needed a strategy.

I realised that just about everything must be prepared the night before. On the morning itself, it's fine to add little touches to a salad that has been marinating in the fridge overnight - a few freshly chopped herbs or a handful of pine nuts. But, as you roll from the warmth of your duvet, you have neither time nor inclination to start crushing garlic and mixing dressings.

Given this, a certain type of salad lends itself to a lunch box. Nothing leafy or frail - what works is along the lines of vegetables cooked to a voluptuous tenderness and allowed to steep in olive oil with herbs, garlic and spices. The sort of thing you might find in an Italian deli, except that you can do very much better at home.

No matter how hackneyed grilled vegetables or roasted peppers may have become, they are a perfect solution and always delicious at room temperature. Try not just peppers and aubergines, but fennel, squashes, onions and carrots layered with black olives, and a young goat's cheese in olive oil alongside. You can grab a chunk of focaccia or a crusty roll from a patisserie on the way in.

There is also something to be said for the rather grim layered salads that have appeared of late. The idea is to build one of these strategically, so that all the ingredients stay fresh. Anything likely to seep juice, such as tomatoes, goes on the bottom; the top is reserved for delicate herbs and crisp salad leaves.

All the while, I kept a careful eye on the Fort effort - sausages one day, Twiglets another. "My uncle has an understanding of my peasant taste in food," said George, who comes from Italy. Uncle thoughtfully included plenty of the type of delights that might remind him of the green grass of home: Parma ham and Parmesan in sandwiches; sun-dried tomatoes and basil.

I also came to understand the need for dainties. When building a better lunch box, it is the hidden surprises that define it - a handful of pistachios or macadamia nuts, a few spicy oriental crackers and caper berries. The summer is all about fruit, and never the tedium of some down-under apple when there are punnets of raspberries and black cherries to be plundered - or gargantuan juicy peaches. For the very end, add a little something that is very sweet, like the largest chocolate truffle you have ever seen, a marron glace or two or a lump of Turkish delight.

Such fare relies almost exclusively on small delis, cheese shops, patisseries and the like. It is treasure hunting of the kind that is no-go in a supermarket, and has to do with esoteric curiosities.

Bought delicacies are convenient. Make no more than one or two things a day - nothing more onerous than a salad or sandwich - and combine them with whatever happens to be in the fridge. And there you have it. As you will see below, I prepared lunch boxes for the office working week of five days. On the sixth, I stayed in bed.

Diary of a lunchbox

Day 1

Crab sandwich

Mix some fresh white crabmeat with a little finely grated celeriac - first salted, rinsed and squeezed to remove the juices - and dress with mayonnaise made with groundnut oil and a hefty dollop of Dijon mustard. You can do this the night before.

On the morning, add some skinned and diced tomato and strips of basil, and fill a couple of slices of pain a la semoule or a rustic white bread.

Salad of baby artichokes and courgettes

Pare, cook and quarter baby artichokes, and blanch thin slices of courgette. Dress while hot with a good olive oil, such as Ravida, a dash of balsamic vinegar, a little chopped, fresh red chilli and a smidgen of crushed garlic. You can make this salad in advance and leave it to steep in the fridge. Before sending it on its way, add some pine nuts and purple shiso (or perilla, a beautifully delicate herb with hints of basil that usually comes in punnets like mustard and cress).

Tulamin raspberries

Sally Clarke's chocolate brownies

Marrons glaces

Day 2

Mushrooms slow-cooked in olive oil

Place a mixture of mushrooms in a casserole. Include some wild ones, or at least some shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Add some peeled garlic cloves, a whole red chilli, a couple of bay leaves, a dash of white wine and a generous amount of olive oil and season. Cover and cook in a low oven at 140C for 112 hours. This is another salad that will keep for several days in the fridge.

Quails eggs

Boil for 212 minutes and cool in cold water. Leave in their shell.

Bouchee William

This is an enormous chocolate truffle flavoured with Poire William liqueur and studded with pistachio nuts.

Lavender Shortbread

Make an ordinary shortbread - 8oz unsalted butter, 4oz caster sugar, 7oz plain flour and 4oz ground almonds brought together into a dough, to which a little dried lavender is added. After resting it for an hour or so, roll it out thinly and bake the biscuit in a low oven for about 40 minutes until lightly tanned.

Charentais melon

Or any small and delectably sweet melon that can be eaten scooped out from the half shell.

Day 3

Barbecued chicken

I always barbecue more food than I need, to eat the next day. The chicken breasts had been marinated in a spicy jerk seasoning - very good sliced and cold.

Tabbouleh

I have said in the past that tabbouleh must be made freshly an hour or two beforehand, but you can cheat when it comes to a lunch box. Chop and combine two tomatoes and a spring onion the night before, and blend two tablespoons of lemon juice with three tablespoons of olive oil and seasoning. On the morning, chop a bunch of parsley, a handful of mint leaves and rinse 112 tablespoons of fine burghol under the tap in a sieve, and combine all these ingredients together.

Lemon cheescake

Avoid the pre-packed, and search out a nice big slice cut from the whole in a patisserie.

Pistachio nuts

I buy these loose from a Middle Eastern deli. They're tinged with pink, freshly roasted and salted, and completely different from what you get in a packet.

Black cherries

The biggest, blackest ones you can find, in a brown paper bag.

Day 4

Smoked salmon and creamed aubergine ficelle

The greatest treat for smoked salmon fans is when it comes wild and freshly sliced from a whole side: my husband had picked up this side in Dublin, and the slices were beautifully creamy, fragrant and dry. Once filled, a French stick delights in the addition of some aubergine caviar or creamed aubergine. Make this by pricking and roasting aubergines in a hot oven for about 25 minutes. Peel, then squeeze out the juices in a sieve and reduce to a puree in a food processor with home- made mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add some sprigs of flat- leaf parsley to the sandwich, too.

Caper berries

These are trendy and very varied in quality. The best come sold loose like olives, about the size of a plum stone.

Baklava

Buy this loose in small lozenge shapes from a Middle Eastern deli.

Dates

Lychees

Day 5

Grilled vegetable salad with feta and black olives

Roast the peppers in a hot oven for 20 minutes. Then put them in a plastic bag to cool before skinning and deseeding them. Other vegetables such as aubergine, carrots, fennel, red onions and courgettes can be brushed with olive oil and grilled on a ridged griddle. Layer these with slices of feta cheese, black olives, basil leaves and more olive oil. You can make this in advance.

Grissini

Great snack material in place of bread or crackers.

Treacle tart

Blueberries

Terry's Chocolate Orange

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