It’s the start of term. Old friends are returning, new faces appearing. We’re having our first tastes of new classes, be they exciting or lacklustre. The smell of new books, interminable lines at Service Point, posters popping up like mushrooms to herald new events.
Lost, perhaps, among these familiar signs of the academic new year is the return of the lunch box. You may be on a meal plan, or prefer to buy your lunch on campus every day, or live near enough to campus to be able to go home and make your lunch between classes. For most of us, however, lunch boxes—or the equivalent cobbled together out of plastic bags and reused hummus containers—are an essential part of school-life. Unless you have a habit of bringing caviar or candy bars, packing a lunch is cheaper, tastier, and healthier than even the best options at restaurants and cafés. (No one was thinking of skipping lunch, right? Good.)
The problem with the routine of packed lunches is that they can easily become, well, routine. Mornings are not a good time for the average student, and we all have so many other things to think about that it becomes very easy to turn on autopilot and make the same old peanut butter sandwich every single day. This is easy, but very, very dull, not to mention dangerous: the less variety you eat, the more likely you are to be missing some essential vitamin or mineral.
Instead of thinking of lunch boxes as lunch boxes, I try to think of them as picnics – they seem more fun that way! Indeed, they needn’t be fancy or expensive, and they needn’t be made from scratch at 5:30am to give you time to get to your 8:30am lecture. Instead of a sandwich, you might take crackers and cheese, for example, or hummus and carrot sticks. You could take a big tub of salad and a little container of dressing on the side. You could take leftover rice or quinoa or black bean salad. You could take a bit of soup or stew in a thermos. I love to look at Japanese bentos for inspiration, but don’t be frightened off by their complexity; presentation is nice, but the important thing is variety, and to have that you don’t need obscure ingredients or the ability to cut nori into the shape of a peacock!
One of the things I love to do with my lunches is something I love to do with any of my meals: go to the market and get something that’s in season, fresh, and inexpensive, then construct a lunch around it. If you follow this path, you are certain, right now, to encounter row upon row of glossy purple-black eggplants. Pick ones that are relatively small—the big ones tend to be tough and seedy—and have firm flesh and smooth skins. If you want to pick up some tahini, that’s super, but you could just as easily use that peanut butter you were going to put in your sandwich. Go home, make babaganoush, and have a picnic.
1 medium eggplant
1 T olive oil
1/3 C tahini
2-3 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp salt
Paprika or chopped parsley, as a garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Slice the eggplant in two lengthwise and trim off the stem. Score the eggplant by drawing a tic-tac-toe board on the cut side with your knife; the incisions should be about 1 cm deep. Rub the olive oil into the scored sides, then put the eggplant in the oven.
Go do something else for half an hour, then come back and check with a knife to see whether the eggplant is soft. If so, take it out of the oven to cool a bit; if not, leave it another 5 minutes and check again.
When the eggplant is cool enough to touch, use a small knife to peel off the skin. Put the eggplant flesh in a blender or food processor, add the tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and salt, and pulse until it is reasonably smooth. Taste it and add more lemon juice or salt, if you think it needs it.
Babaganoush will keep in the fridge for about a week. It’s delicious with pita bread, crackers, sliced vegetables, or just on its own. Happy picnicking!
Note: if you don’t have a blender or food processor, fear not—if you chop the cooked eggplant very finely, like garlic, you can just stir everything else in with a spoon.
Makes about 1 cup.