I work from home, but I refuse to eat at my desk. It is one of those small rules of life I have upheld for as long as I can remember. Lunch neither refreshes nor recharges unless I am several feet from my place of work. Even if this, often the shortest of all meals, only takes 10 minutes, I always move to another room to enjoy it.
It is all too easy not to stop for a break. To pick at something as you type or talk. But I believe we should stop, even if just for a few minutes. It is crucial for our wellbeing and probably good for our work too.
OK, I need little excuse for a bite to eat. A sandwich perhaps, a hastily thrown together fridge-raid piled on a piece of thick bread. As such it is fine, but I think we can do better. You can toss a few prawns in a quickly made marinade, or some pieces of chicken into a bowl of buttermilk, and they can sit calmly doing their thing, until you are ready to cook. The hard part is partially done by the marinade as you work.
The prawns can be grilled or fried in a wok, they can be wrapped in lettuce and eaten in the hand or tossed into a deep bowl of noodles. That chicken, now tender and ready for you, can be dipped into paprika-seasoned flour and fried, and eaten hot or given time to rest. I also think such a recipe works cold, each piece of crumbed chicken dipped into a bowl of mayonnaise.
The sandwich can be a classic affair of pastrami on rye spread with cream cheese and cucumber. But it could also be something new, like the one I made with focaccia dipped in maple syrup, toasted and topped with berries.
With the clock ticking, it is unlikely lunch will be a drawn-out affair. But it will, in my house at least, be taken away from the desk. I shall not share my lunch with my laptop.
Pastrami, cucumber, mustard and dill mascarpone
I have a fondness for the cardboard-wrapped delights of the takeaway sandwich shop. Those layers of soft bread and peeping fillings have more appeal to me than that of simply convenience. At home I am more likely to make an open sandwich, adding a curl of smoked salmon or a fold of ham or whatever comes to hand in the fridge. What appeals to me is having something more interesting than butter or mayonnaise to spread on the bread. Ricotta with mint and chopped radish; a spicy apple chutney stirred through mayonnaise; grated beetroot folded though cream cheese with poppy seeds and a sprinkle of cider vinegar, perhaps.
For an open sandwich of pastrami I made a spread of cream cheese and grated cucumber. I could have added chopped gherkins and capers too. If mascarpone isn’t around, try ricotta or a full-fat cream cheese.
Such a recipe, light, well-seasoned and spreadable, is suitable as a dip too. A bowl of soft cheese and herbs in which to dip a freshly picked, pencil-thin carrot or a blistered curl of pork crackling.
Makes 6 small open sandwiches
dill a small bunch
grain mustard 2 tbsp
salt and pepper to taste
dark rye bread 6 thin slices
pastrami 200g, thin slices
Slice the cucumber in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Coarsely grate the cucumber, place in a sieve balanced over a bowl and leave for 15 minutes.
Finely chop the dill. Put the mascarpone in a bowl, add the dill, mustard, salt and pepper and mix briefly. Slice the radishes into rounds.
Squeeze the grated cucumber with your hands to remove much of the water, then stir the cucumber into the mascarpone. Spread this thickly onto the slices of rye bread, then lay a slice of pastrami on to each one. Add a few radishes and a twist of ground pepper.
Crispy-fried kefir chicken with rosemary and garlic
I like having something partially prepared, waiting calmly until I’m ready to take a break from work. Chicken, soaking in a marinade, will sit quietly in the fridge until you feel like tossing it in seasoned flour and frying it till the inside is juicy, the skin crisp as ice. I make a batch, eating some hot and setting the rest aside to eat cold. Chicken, marinated in buttermilk, is an American classic, but buttermilk is less than easy to find. Thwarted once again, but with my mind set on fried chicken, I decided to use kefir. The resulting batter was light, crisp and deliciously fragile. Blessed with the same tang as the traditional recipe, I would do it again. Kefir is certainly easier to track down than buttermilk nowadays. (If neither can be found, you could add a squeeze of lemon juice to a tub of natural, unstrained yogurt.)
The chicken can marinate overnight. The flouring and frying and subsequent baking will take 45 minutes. You can have most of the chicken for dinner and keep a couple of pieces back for lunch the following day. I make a salad of shredded white cabbage to go with this, seasoning it lightly with white wine vinegar and dill while the chicken crisps. We used large free-range thighs, finishing them in the oven to cook them right through, keeping the batter crisp. This has the advantage of making them less greasy too. If you have small chicken thighs, then you may find they are cooked after the initial deep frying. Keep the oil at 170C-180C and check carefully that the chicken is thoroughly cooked to the bone.
chicken thighs 6, bone in, skin on
garlic 4 cloves
olive oil 3 tbsp
rosemary leaves 1 tbsp
sea salt 2 tbsp
sunflower or groundnut oil about 200ml
plain flour 150g
smoked paprika 2 tsp
ground chilli 2 tsp
red or orange peppers 2, large
Put the chicken thighs into a deep bowl and pour the kefir over them. Roll the thighs over to completely coat them, then cover and place in a fridge for anything up to 24 hours.
Peel and thinly slice the garlic, warm the olive oil in a sauté pan, then add the garlic and fry for 3 or 4 minutes till it starts to colour, then add the rosemary and continue cooking for 1 minute. Lift the garlic and rosemary out with a draining spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the sea salt and wipe the pan clean.
Set the oven at 160C fan/gas mark 4. Warm two-thirds of the sunflower or groundnut oil in the pan to come halfway up the thighs. Put the flour into a shallow bowl and season with the smoked paprika and ground chilli. Remove the thighs from the marinade and press into the seasoned flour, making sure it clings generously to each piece. Lower each piece into the hot oil, no more than three in the pan at once. The oil should fizz and bubble immediately.
Fry the chicken for about 4 minutes until the underside is golden, then turn carefully and cook the other side. Secure a rack or cooling tray over a roasting tin. Lift each piece of chicken from the pan with a draining spoon and place on the rack. Continue frying the remaining chicken, then place the chicken in the oven for 25 minutes till deep golden and cooked right through to the bone.
Cut the peppers in half and remove the seeds and core. Warm the remaining oil in a sauté pan, add the peppers and fry them for about 10 minutes till soft and giving. Lift out, set aside and discard the oil. Lay the peppers on a serving dish then place the chicken on top and season with the salt and garlic mixture.
Noodles, prawns and cucumber
If you toss together a marinade in the morning, your seafood, meat or vegetables can steep quietly while you work.
We did this with prawns this week, letting them sit in a mixture of fish sauce, mirin, vinegar and lime juice. I could have thrown a handful of them on the grill and stuffed them into a soft, flour-dusted bun with some curls of cos lettuce, but used them instead to liven up a bowl of noodles.
A marinade has often done its work once the meat or fish is removed. This time, the liquid was simmered down to a few spoonfuls, which we used to dress the transparent angel hair noodles and green herbs. I used mint and coriander but also basil. I’m growing a pot of Thai basil at the moment, so a handful of its purple-stained leaves went in as well.
For the marinade
fish sauce 2 tbsp
mirin 2 tbsp
rice vinegar 1 tbsp
lime juice 100ml (about 2 limes)
red chilli 1, medium raw prawns 16
For the noodles
mint leaves 12
coriander a handful
angel hair noodles 100g
groundnut oil 2 tbsp
Combine the fish sauce, mirin, rice vinegar and lime juice in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Finely chop the chilli and add to the bowl. Put the prawns into the marinade and leave for an hour or so.
Peel the cucumber, slice in half lengthways and remove the core with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into short lengths and then into large matchstick-sized pieces, then put them in a bowl with the mint leaves and coriander.
Put the noodles in a heatproof bowl, pour a kettle of boiling water over them and set aside while you cook the prawns.
Warm the groundnut oil in a shallow pan. When it starts to sizzle, add the prawns and let them cook for 2 minutes. Remove the prawns, then pour in the marinade and leave it to bubble for a couple of minutes until it has reduced by about half.
Drain the noodles and add to the cucumber and herbs. Add the prawns, then the marinade and toss everything together.
Roast aubergine with spiced chickpeas
Of all the useful things to have around for a casual lunch, a bowl of aubergine puree takes first prize in my house. A spread for warm flatbread; the heart of a pasta sauce; a condiment for grilled lamb cutlets; or something in which to fold chopped tomatoes, coriander leaves and fried onions.
You bake an aubergine or two, scoop out the silken, honey-coloured flesh within, and mash it with a fork. It is a blank – though delicious – canvas to which you can add your own seasonings. For which, read: a drop or two of olive oil, a fistful of mint, some pomegranate seeds or a scattering of toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Shredded basil and a crumbled block of feta; chopped cherry tomatoes and sautéed courgettes; brandy soaked golden sultanas and soft fried onions are all good too.
A roasting tin of aubergines takes about an hour to cook to melting softness. It’s a quick task to slit the skins open and scoop out the centre with a spoon. And there it can stay, in a bowl in the fridge, until you are ready. This time, we used it as a spread for toasted baguettes, scattering the surface with crisp, spiced chickpeas and a handful of toasted seeds.
aubergines 3 medium
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 1 head
chickpeas 500g, tinned or bottled
ras el hanout 3 tsp
tomatoes 200g, assorted
baguette 1 large
For the topping
pumpkin seeds 1 tbsp
sesame seeds 1 tbsp
sunflower seeds 1 tbsp
dried thyme 2 tsp
sea salt 1 tsp
Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Put the aubergines in a roasting tin, pour over the olive oil, then tuck the head of garlic among them. Bake for about 35 minutes then remove the head of garlic and continue cooking the aubergines for another 30 minutes or until they are completely soft.
Separate the head of garlic into cloves then squeeze each one in turn to remove the soft, creamy flesh within.
Remove the aubergines from the oven, break them open and scoop out the soft centre of each into a bowl and discard the skins. Reserve the oil in the roasting tin. Stir the garlic cream into the aubergine.
Rinse the chickpeas and add them to the reserved aubergine oil in the roasting tin. Stir in the ras el hanout, then bake for 20 minutes, till the chickpeas are sizzling.
Finely dice the tomatoes. Remove the chickpeas from the oven and mix with the tomatoes.
In a dry, shallow pan, toast the pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds for 5 minutes or so over a moderate heat till fragrant, shaking the pan regularly as they cook. Add the thyme and salt, then set aside.
Split the baguette in half lengthways, then cut each half into two pieces. Toast the cut sides. Spread the aubergine mixture over the toasted surfaces, top with the chickpea and tomato mixture, then finally the toasted seeds.
Raspberry burrata focaccia
I am not sure whether this is sweet or savoury – or even if it matters. The idea was inspired by the classic treatment of sheep’s cheese, apricots and honey I have eaten all over Greece and the Middle East. Soaking the bread in honey (I have used maple syrup too) produces simply gorgeous toast: deep gold and crisp on the outside, saturated with syrup within. You should probably make sure it’s a plain or herb version rather than one studded with olives or sun-dried tomatoes. If you have no raspberries, use apricots or blackberries, or, as I did the other afternoon, deep red cherries.
plain focaccia 250g
maple syrup or liquid honey 6 tbsp
burrata 2 x 250g balls
pistachios 2 tbsp, finely ground
Cut the focaccia in half horizontally and then into 4 squares. Put them on a baking sheet, cut side uppermost, and trickle with the maple syrup or honey. Place under a heated overhead grill for 8 minutes or so, until they are golden and lightly crisp.
Break or slice the burrata and divide between the focaccia, then cover each with raspberries. Dust the surface with ground pistachios and serve.