Packed lunches: The al desko gourmet

Packed lunches used to mean curly sandwiches and brown bananas. These days, they've gone gourmet. Simon Usborne gets cooking

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:00

It doesn't matter what you put into Tupperware; by the time it's spent half a day sweating in a backpack or festering in a desk drawer, it gives off the same smell – that musty mix of cling film, sliced bread and margarine that has the power to fill a bus or a train carriage in seconds. It's one of many reasons why I've always hated packed lunches. I used to take them to primary school, where inedible council dinners made bringing-your-own a must. Squished into the corner of my Addis lunchbox, next to the Club biscuit bar, the carton of Um Bongo and the Salt'n'Shake crisps would lurk a lump of food masquerading as a sandwich. I can picture it as clearly as I can smell it: the oil from the tinned tuna has mingled with the margarine, slathering the cucumber and soggy bread in a fishy, fatty mess. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

As soon as I got to secondary school, where the food wasn't bad, I ditched the squished sandwiches – and ever since I have avoided packed lunches at all costs. These days, at my east London office, lunch means a dash to the work canteen or a foray to Canary Wharf, where a bewildering array of sandwich shops, sushi bars and gourmet burger joints has taken root under the forest of skyscrapers to cater for "al desko" diners.

But, just as our schedules are tightening, so our budgets are shrinking. Salmon sashimi or avocado wraps might go down better than a tuna sandwich, but they don't come cheap and, as the credit crunch continues to bite, there are signs that more of us are dusting off our lunchboxes. A recent survey carried out by a margarine manufacturer – with a vested interest, admittedly – suggested that 40 per cent of us eat lunch at our desks more often than we did two years ago, with almost 80 per cent of us preferring to pack our own.

Does this mean more soggy sandwiches and congealed leftovers? Or is there a way to make great packed lunches that won't break the bank or take hours to prepare? To find out, I resolve to banish childhood memories and embark on an experiment. I'll turn my back on the canteen and eschew the sushi. I'll talk to five food experts to get five recipes to create a mouth-watering menu for a week's worth of DIY lunches. I'll rate each meal on cost, preparation time, and taste. Will I save money? Or will packed lunches still leave a bad taste in the mouth?

Day 1 – Sausage Rolls

I fancy something British to get things rolling. I talk to Clive Dixon, who runs Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head pub in Berkshire. Clive's menu is full of dishes like oxtail and kidney pudding, but the office is no place for offal. Can he suggest something suitable for a portable midday snack?

"Sausage rolls!" he says, without hesitation. "They are without doubt an underrated delicacy, but you've got to get the best ingredients or they're crap." I can't afford award-winning bangers, but I invest in some Duchy Originals pork sausages with herbs (£2.85 for six: 48p a go) when I drag myself into Sainsbury's on the way home from work. At least they'll be better than the supermarket's "Basics" option (one-eighth of the price but 32 per cent pork compared with 85 per cent in Prince Charles's finest).

Then it's to the dairy aisle; Clive has suggested mixing the sausage meat with Lancashire cheese before rolling it into puff pastry, which, naturally, I buy in a ready-to-roll slab. But by the time I get home it's almost 8 o'clock and I'm in no mood to roll. I cook up some of the sausages for dinner and stick my ingredients in the fridge.

The next morning, out of bed half an hour earlier than usual, I realise I don't own a rolling pin – baking isn't really my thing – so I improvise with a floured bottle of merlot, which works a treat. Squeezing sausage meat into a bowl is an unpleasant way to start the day, and it gets really messy when I start mixing in the cheese and cayenne pepper. I mould the mixture into sausage shapes and roll it in the pastry squares. After 20 minutes in the oven, they look better than anything you'll see on the shelves at Greggs.

They survive the journey to work, too; my sausage rolls are greeted with envious coos when I lift them out of their Tupperware, five hours later. They look fantastic and taste even better; one colleague will go on to beg for more for the rest of the week. Jamie, my canteen lunch companion, has forked out more than £4 for a distinctly unappealing plate of chicken, rice and sweetcorn. Round one to the packed luncher.

Shopping list: (for two large sausage rolls)

Puff pastry 98p
Sausages 95p
Cheese 44p
Free-range egg 28p
Lettuce (for on the side) 20p
From the cupboard: cayenne pepper, oil and vinegar for dressing

Method: Roll out the pastry (wine bottle optional) and cut into squares. Leave to rest. Empty sausage meat into bowl. Mix with two thick slices of cheese, crumbled, and two teaspoons of cayenne pepper. Mould the mixture into sausage shapes and lay in the middle of a pastry square. Roll the pastry over the meat and seal with egg wash. Cut off excess pastry and cut slits in the top. Brush with egg and place in a hot oven for about 20 minutes.

Cost: £2.85
Time: 30 minutes

Day 2 – Tortilla

I'd been determined not to make anything resembling a sandwich, but when Nicola Graimes, the author of The Top 100 Recipes for a Healthy Lunchbox, gives me a recipe for a tortilla in a baguette, I'm intrigued enough to lift the butty ban. After all, Nicola ought to be an authority on the packed lunch; not only has she written the book, but she's also a mother. "Packed lunches are a big part of my life," she says. "But they're a neglected meal. Too often we find something our children like a little and then feed them nothing else until they never want it again."

Too true. But my sandwich-based scepticism increases when I see that this recipe includes tinned tuna – the one foodstuff, above all others, that sums up why I've passed over packed lunches for all these years. At least I already have a tin in the back of the cupboard. In fact, all I need to buy are some eggs, potatoes, bread and an onion – making this the cheapest lunch of the week. Nicola's recipe serves four so, rather than scale it to one, I prepare the whole thing for dinner and leave enough for lunch the next day.

The method doesn't stretch my limited cookery skills. Slicing the onion is the only task that requires a modicum of dexterity – that and cracking the eggs, which I manage to do while keeping most of the shells out of the bowl. Onions fried, potatoes boiled and tuna drained, it's just a case of throwing it in the frying pan and pouring in the eggs. Five minutes to cook the bottom, then another five under the grill for the top. It comes out looking, well, good enough to eat.

Nicole suggests sticking a wedge of the tortilla in a crusty roll with a dollop of chutney. The resulting sandwich doesn't look terribly appetising – a few lettuce leaves would have added crunch and colour – and there aren't the gasps that greeted my sausage rolls when I start chomping at my desk. I've also under-seasoned the tortilla. But the whole thing tastes pretty good, or at least better than any of the sandwiches on offer in the canteen – and it keeps hunger locked away until, well, half past three.

Shopping list: (for two tortilla rolls)

Three eggs 83p
225g potatoes 20p
Crusty bread 36p
Onion 15p
From the cupboard: oil, tinned tuna, salt and pepper

Method: Slice the onion and fry in oil till slightly golden. Stir in tuna, in chunks, and arrange boiled potatoes, spreading the ingredients evenly in the pan. Season the eggs and pour into the pan, cooking over a medium heat until the base is golden and set. Place under a preheated grill until the top is set. Leave to cool. Stick a wedge in a baguette with a dollop of chutney and some leaves.

Cost: £1.54
Time: 25 minutes

Day 3 – Asian coleslaw with peanuts and chilli

I don't know where our canteen gets its vegetables, but I'm pretty sure they're not organic. If they were, we'd probably have to pay more for our lunches, and that would go down like a burnt shepherd's pie. But ideally we'd all like to eat organic, wouldn't we? To find out if it can be done on a budget, I speak to one of the biggest names in the business.

Guy Watson started delivering boxes of organic vegetables grown on his family's Devon farm in the mid-Eighties – long before lush carrot-tops spilling over rustic boxes became a common sight in the nation's posher postcodes. Today, Riverford Organic Vegetables is one of the country's largest independent growers, and Watson is passionate about getting organic food to the masses. "I find it so frustrating when people say they can't afford organic," he says. "We spend more on our cappuccinos on the way to work than we do on our vegetables. Organic meat can be more expensive but I don't believe it's the case for vegetables – we're talking a difference of pence here."

Watson has teamed up with the Riverford cook Jane Baxter, to produce the Riverford Farm Cook Book, a collection of their favourite recipes with a sprinkling of Watson's musings on all things organic (including "Supermarkets: a lifetime of loathing"). I opt for the Asian coleslaw with peanuts and chilli – something from the farm, but with a twist. I don't eat enough vegetables to warrant a box delivery, so it's back to Sainsbury's (sorry, Guy) to check out the organic options.

First, the cabbage. Two problems: I only need a quarter of a cabbage, but they only come whole; and Sainsbury's organic cabbage cost £1.59 per kilo, compared with 69p for the chemically assisted version. That's quite a difference. It's the same story with the tomatoes (organic £3.26/kg, or £1.59/kg for loose normal ones) and carrots (89p/kg for a bag of non-organic, against £1.32/kg organic). Still, Guy's words ringing in my ears, I stick with organic. At least the apple isn't a problem – I get one from my mum's garden.

Back in the kitchen before work, it's time to chop. And slice. And grate. It's a lot of work, and I grate a small section of my little finger in with the carrot. When it's finished, my lunch looks more like leftovers than the dish in Watson's book. I'm too ashamed of it to eat with colleagues in the canteen, so it's off to the "loner's table", where people sit on stools and read the paper with their lunch. It's a low point of the week, but, while my lunch doesn't look very appetising, it tastes pretty good. It isn't gloopy. The chilli adds zing, while the peanuts give things a crunch. And, in spite of going organic, it still costs me less than £3.

Shopping list: (for one big portion)

1/4 organic cabbage 30p
50g beansprouts 20p
1 small organic tomato 33p
2 organic carrots 25p
1/2 red pepper 34p
1 tbsp peanuts 20p
Half a chilli 10p
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce 79p (I had to buy a whole bottle)
From the cupboard: 1 apple, garlic, onion, brown sugar, lemon juice, sweet chilli sauce

Method: Combine the garlic, onion, chopped chilli, fish sauce, sugar, lemon juice and sweet chilli sauce in a bowl. Whisk and set aside. Mix the shredded cabbage, grated carrots, apple, sliced pepper, chopped tomato and crushed peanuts. Toss with the dressing.

Cost: £2.51
Time: 20 minutes

Day 4 – pea salad (aka brain food)

For today's lunch, I talk to a man who promises to feed my frazzled brain as well as my stomach. Charlie Ayers was hired in 1999 by two hungry Stanford graduates who needed fuel food to power their shot at global domination; the two men were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. By 2005, Charlie's catering empire at the search engine's HQ had expanded to 10 cafés and 150 staff serving 4,000 meals a day.

"A good lunch was essential for those guys," he says. "My cooking was healthy, but more importantly, it was good – when you have something motivating you to come into work, productivity goes up. It was part of the Google masterplan."

Ayers left Google to become a food consultant and, eventually, to open his own restaurant. In the meantime, he's written Eat Yourself Smart. I ask him to give me a recipe for a Tupperware-friendly lunch. He directs me to Seattle Jim's pea salad, created by Jim Glass, one of Ayers's former sous chefs. "It has things you guys like over there – bacon and peas," Ayers says. I do like bacon and peas. What I don't like is spending ages cooking, and all this recipe requires is frying two rashers of bacon. While they're sizzling I chop and slice and mix everything in a bowl with the crème fraiche and dill dressing.

By this stage, colleagues have become tired of my packed lunch project and my savings-related smugness. They mock my Tupperware and, although I'm not the only one walking into the canteen with my own lunch, for some reason I feel, well, silly with my plastic box, as if part of me has returned to that sorry primary-school dining hall. But the tables are turned when I reveal my Larry Page salad. It looks great, and suddenly colleagues' plates of meat and two veg look lacklustre. I'm soon fending off incoming forks.

Shopping list: (for one big portion)

Red onion 15p
60g mange tout 35p
110g water chestnuts 35p
1 tbsp crème fraiche 20p
Fresh dill 75p
From the cupboard: bacon, frozen peas, mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper

Method: Fry two rashers of bacon until crisp. Drain on kitchen towel. Mix thawed peas with chopped onion, sliced mange tout, sliced water chestnuts and bacon pieces in a bowl. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, crème fraiche, vinegar, garlic and dill. Season and add to the salad. Toss and serve.

Cost: £1.80
Time: 15 minutes

Day 5 – peanut chicken noodle salad

It's the final day of my packed lunch odyssey, and I decide to go out with a bang. I give the lovely Ching He-Huang a call. She's the cook whose recent BBC series Chinese Food Made Easy (and book of the same name) set out to show a British public raised on gloopy takeaway that Chinese food can be fresh, healthy and easy to cook.

Ching tells me she used to get fried rice or dim sum and dumplings in her packed lunches. I'm not up to anything fiddly, so Ching suggests her peanut chicken noodle salad. I'm drawn by the salad bit, but my hopes of a simple lunch are dashed when I turn to the recipe. There are 16 ingredients and most of them are hard to find.

The duty manager at Sainsbury's says they only stock shallots in the run-up to Christmas, so a small-ish onion will have to do. The biggest challenge is the noodles, about which Ching is specific: "You should use a good quality white shi wheat flour noodle – I wouldn't recommend dried egg noodles, which are not as springy and don't have enough bite". The assistant doesn't know what a "shi" is. I choose Amoy "straight to wok" noodles.

While the chicken's poaching, I do the sauce, which turns out to be a cinch. Then it's back to chopping the fresh ingredients and layering it all with the shredded chicken. I have forgotten the cucumber slices and couldn't find spring onion so there's a lack of colour and the result has a hint of the cat-sick about it when I open my trusty Tupperware on a bench outside the office.

But, how good it tastes. It's spicy and refreshing, and those wheat noodles with their all-important bite are the perfect vehicle for the sauce and chicken. It took a while to cook but still came out cheaper than a canteen lunch – even with the bottles of sesame and groundnut oil I had to buy. It's also the best lunch I've had in weeks, packed or otherwise.

Shopping list: (for one big portion)

150g wheat flour noodles 50p
Toasted sesame oil £1.31 (bottle)
1 skinless chicken breast £1.40
Unsalted cashews 40p
1 tbsp groundnut oil £1.08 (bottle)
2 tbsp crunchy peanut butter 78p
3 tbsp vegetable stock 77p (Oxo cubes)
Coriander 60p
From the cupboard: soy sauce, water, small onion, medium red chilli

Method: Toss the noodles in sesame oil and soy sauce and set aside. Boil the chicken for 10 minutes and set aside. Dry-fry the cashews and crush. Fry the onion in groundnut oil in a hot wok until translucent, add the peanut butter and chilli and stir-fry for a minute. Add the stock and 2 tbsp water and mix. Transfer to a bowl as it starts to bubble. Layer the noodles and other ingredients in Tupperware, top with the shredded chicken and, finally, the peanut sauce and crushed cashews.

Cost: £3.10
Time: 35 minutes

I've reached the end of the week and I haven't starved. I've only spent £11.80, or an average of £2.36 a lunch. That's a good pound a day less than I spend in the canteen. Over a year I'd save at least £250 – and much more if I stopped blowing a fiver at Pret. And I'd be richer still if I'd been more efficient. As Clive Dixon, my sausage-roll mentor, tells me, forethought is key. "You've got to plan the night before when you're cooking dinner," he says. "It doesn't have to be an extra job."

Planning would have saved time, but I'm not going to make packed lunches every day. Most weeks I struggle to produce five dinners, never mind lunches. And what if I go out after work? But my bank balance isn't the only thing that's healthier. Without the canteen's more gut-busting options, there's a new spring in my step – and I am at least partly converted to Tupperware.

Most important, I have proved that packed lunches don't have to be a sorry, soggy excuse for a meal. I'm still using my lunchbox and, who knows, if we're forced to tighten our belts another hole, I might be spending more time in the kitchen. Anyone for sausage rolls?

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