Hunger Management

No pain with grains

Easy-to-prepare grain bowls add variety to lunch at work

Living in the most expensive city in the world means I get mini heart attacks sometimes when paying for things.

On days when I am running errands in the Orchard Road area at lunchtime, I like to pop into a deli to get lunch to go. I usually grab two salads, both with seared or poached fish and greens. They cost $15 each. The price is outrageous, but for the sake of convenience, I shut up, pay up and, in total loser fashion, even get a $6 coffee to go.

I buy two salads because I really do not like the rocket leaves that come with one of the salads, but love the plain chunks of poached salmon that sit on top.

The salads are not difficult to put together. The tuna in the other one is seared on the outside and raw on the inside by design.

I keep thinking about what a high price I pay for convenience. It is not like I cannot cook. All I need is a little time and planning, but why is that so hard to do?

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: GRAIN BOWL

  • INGREDIENTS

    Two 200g skin-on salmon fillets, preferably from the centre part of the fish

    1/2 tsp salt

    1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

    3 Tbs Dijon or grain mustard

    3 Tbs maple syrup

    300g to 400g pumpkin or butternut squash

    1 medium zucchini, about 300g

    1/2 tsp salt

    2 tsp olive oil

    200g quinoa

    400ml chicken stock, preferably low sodium

    80g cooked ginkgo nuts

    3 Tbs wolfberries

    2 scallions, sliced thinly crosswise

  • METHOD

    1. The night before cooking, rinse the fish under running water, pat very dry with paper towels. Remove the pinbones with a pair of tweezers or your fingers. Combine the salt, pepper, mustard and maple syrup in a small bowl, making sure they are well mixed. Rub it all over the fish. Place the fish in a covered container and refrigerate overnight.

    2. Before cooking, remove the fish from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature while you prepare the other ingredients. Preheat the oven to 200 deg C and line a baking tray with foil or baking paper.

    3. Scrape the seeds from the pumpkin and slice off the skin. Then cut into rough chunks. Cut the zucchini into 2 to 3cm thick rounds. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp of salt and some freshly ground pepper on the vegetables, add the olive oil and mix using your hands, making sure that all the vegetables are covered in oil. Roast for 30 to 35 minutes or until the vegetables are lightly browned.

    4. In the meantime, place the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve and wash it under running water as you would rice. Let drain about 10 minutes. Place in a pot with a cover and pour in the stock. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed. Remove from the stove and let sit five minutes, covered.

    5. Blanch the ginkgo nuts and wolfberries with boiling water, drain and set aside in a small bowl.

    6. When the vegetables are done, transfer them into a bowl with a pair of tongs. Oil the paper or foil again and place the salmon fillets on the tray. Cook for eight to 10 minutes in the upper part of the oven and transfer onto a plate.

    7. While the salmon is cooking, add the ginkgo nuts, wolfberries and scallions to the quinoa and mix well. Have a taste and add salt if needed.

    8. Divide the quinoa, roasted vegetables and fish between two bowls. Serve.

    Serves two

So instead of spacing out on the couch when I have some free time on the weekends, I look at my schedule for the next week and then do the prep work for take-to-work lunches.

My inspiration comes from the grain bowls that are so popular now. These cost the earth too and I shake my head at the sad photo a friend sends me of some quinoa with thin strips of salmon and a sprinkling of vegetables. That meal, if it can be called that, costs $14.

For that price, I can put together a substantial meal with exactly what I like. No flavour-free rocket leaves. Bigger pieces of fish or meat. A meal that would fill me up so I do not scrabble around for chips or crackers at 4pm.

The trick is to get all the prep work done ahead of time and then assemble the bowls the night before. Make small amounts of different things so that there will be variety in the lunches.

Now these recipes probably break the rules of Paleo, Wheat Belly or any number of diets. Good. I am aiming for food I can eat often and am not trying to make like a cave woman.

Quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, but I use it as a base because it is easy to find in supermarkets, easy to cook and has a flavour that is easy to like. It is also rich in protein.

Instead of cooking the quinoa in water, I use chicken stock so that it is flavourful without needing a sauce or dressing to perk it up.

Cook a batch, divide it into individual servings, then add different things to make the quinoa interesting.

For this week's recipe, I have added wolfberries, ginkgo nuts and scallions. Other options include lemon zest, chopped fresh herbs, seeded and chopped tomatoes, cooked edamame beans, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and dried fruit.

Salad leaves are great for a different texture too: baby spinach leaves, proper peppery arugula rather than insipid rocket, mizuna or maybe daikon sprouts.

I love roasted vegetables and these are easy to make in quantity. Roast a tray of different ones, pack them away separately and add two kinds to each bowl to cut the monotony.

Broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts turn sweet and nutty when roasted. Zucchini, yellow patty-pan squashes and eggplant work well too, as will pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Just sprinkle salt and pepper over them, a slick of olive oil and roast until brown at the edges.

Finally, the protein. I am trying to eat more fish so that is what I have in my bowls. Sometimes if I am lucky, I can get a whole 2kg salmon for about $20. The supermarket will scale, gut and portion the fish out. Other good alternatives include barramundi and snapper.

Now I know the healthy thing would be to just poach the salmon in a bit of lemon juice and water, but I do not want my lunch bowls to be too austere. So I marinate my fish in a mix of mustard and maple syrup before roasting in the oven. Barramundi and snapper can be pan- fried or grilled with a bit of olive oil.

The maple and mustard marinade can also be used for boneless chicken thighs. They will need to be cooked longer than the fish of course, for 30 to 40 minutes. Or grill a steak, slice it into strips and add to the bowl.

When I get tired of quinoa, there will be couscous; farro, a nutty grain which can be one of three ancient varieties of wheat; brown rice, cargo rice or even barley.

There is something very satisfying about having a fridge filled with containers of prepped food, the building blocks of delicious lunches.

What's even better is that these meals will not bring on any heart attacks, big or small.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'MAKE IT YOURSELF: GRAIN BOWL No pain with grains'. Print Edition | Subscribe