In the spirit of frugality, each day I pack a lunch to take to work with me. It saves the cost and the calories of eating out, and I won’t even mention those days where I can’t get out of the office at all. What am I going to do, starve? Not with my carefully-hoarded food supply. Ha!
Dining out is so enjoyable, but I love my packed lunches. They are handy whenever hunger strikes, nearby in the lunch room fridge, and they wholesomely fuel me without weighing me down/imposing a food-coma drowsiness. Because when I say lunches, I should say salads, which have been my work-lunch menu for the past several years. Eating healthfully most of the day allows me to splurge a little on dinner calories, bourbon calories, and still be well-nourished.
In the beginning, my salads were uninspired. And they really lacked variety. I used to believe that lean chicken breast, lots of lettuce and fat-free dressings were the only way I could lose weight… and that was no fun to eat. Not only is cold chicken breast a bit dry and bland, but I had to find time to thaw the meat, trim it, cook it, cool it, chop it. I’m leaving that behind in favor of other forms of (less costly) protein; quinoa, garbanzos, lentils, brown rice and black beans, mushrooms. Much easier! Additionally, I’m glad I’ve learned that a homemade dressing containing healthy fats (drizzled in moderation) is so much tastier and better for me — whole foods in place of chemicals and stabilizers that make up fat-free dressings. Best of all, I’m not hungry two hours after lunch anymore. That is something I can get behind!
Recently I had some leftover vegetables from making Sara Forte’s collard wraps with beets and miso-carrot spread (absolutely delicious) that I made from her beautiful cookbook. I needed to pack my salad for the next day’s lunch and scooped up a bit of this, some of that from the variety of vegetables in the kitchen.
The dish turned out much greater than the sum of its parts; I love this mix of earthy raw beets, crisp slivers of celery, and a lemony vinagrette with lovely brightness and a punch of aromatic shallots. The quinoa provides easily-prepared protein and texture, and the croutons have a crunch and chewiness that is loudly bold with mustard (without being cooked in lots of oil). The croutons are so good! Discovered on one of my favorite food blogs, I will link to Alexandra’s original recipe for the croutons (below) since her photographs and instructions are just perfect. You may never make a different crouton! Put that stale bread to use — in fact, give it a vocation of being tastier than it was fresh, I think. These croutons are a winner.
I wanted to share one example of how simple and nourishing it is to eat right at work — or at home, or even dinner for guests — with just a little advance preparation. A Sunday afternoon often finds me cooking and cooling some quinoa for the coming week of lunches, hard-boiling eggs for portable breakfasts, and in future I’ll be making these croutons for regular rotation — they’re just wonderful. It doesn’t take long, and having some ingredients already washed, sliced or cooked leaves me no excuses to put together a simple, wholesome meal in no time at all.
My requirements for a good lunch salad?… as many different colors of veggies as I can muster, textural variety, some form of protein, a little fat to help absorb nutrients/keep me full, and plenty of voluminous leafy greens. Most importantly, flavor! Eating right isn’t eating right unless we enjoy ourselves, yes? This salad definitely fits the bill. I’d love to hear about some of the delicious ways you eat on-the-go!
quinoa and beet salad with chard ribbons and mustard croutons
If you don’t have citrus on hand for the vinaigrette, use cider vinegar or champagne vinegar. The beauty of this dish lies in working with what you have. Perhaps your substitutions will create a new and different salad altogether!
No need to toss out the bright-red ribs of chard – they make quick, delicious fridge pickles!
- 1 small raw beet, peeled and grated (or julienned on a mandoline)
- 1 cup cooked quinoa (see notes below)
- 2 ribs celery, thinly sliced diagonally
- 2 – 3 leaves red chard, leafy kale or collard greens, center stems removed
- Alexandra Cook’s mustard croutons (they keep well in an air-tight container at room temperature)
for the vinaigrette:
- juice of two lemons (or 1/4 cup cider vinegar)
- 3 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 1 small shallot, minced
- honey, to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil, or vegetable oil for a lighter-flavored dressing
Quinoa cooking tips: Rinse the quinoa well before cooking, in a mesh strainer, to remove bitterness. I like to cook quinoa in the manner of pasta, in quite a bit of water, and drain it when done (for example: 4 quarts of water to 2 cups dry quinoa). This produces fluffy, perfectly-cooked grains every time, even when freshness and water absorption vary from batch to batch. Cooking time also varies, so I taste it for doneness as it cooks, just like I do with pasta. I like to add a bit of low-sodium broth to the cooking liquid, as well, for flavor.
Make vinagrette: add ingredients to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake, or whisk vigorously in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and adjust ingredients for more acidity or more sweetness to your preference. This makes more than you’ll need for two servings; I like to use an empty glass bottle, canning jar or vinegar jar and store my homemade dressings in the fridge.
Assemble salad: Stack the leaves of chard and roll them up, then thinly slice into ribbons. Divide between two plates. Top with shredded beets, sliced celery and a generous scoop of quinoa. Drizzle with vinaigrette to taste, and top with mustard croutons.
This salad’s sturdy vegetables hold up well to being dressed, tossed and stored in the fridge for your next-day lunch (though everything will become brightly-colored pink!). Stow your croutons separately and add just before eating to maintain texture.