Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Resolution #1: Better Brown Bagging

Get to (or stay at) a healthy weight. Enjoy variety. Save money. Control what goes into your body. Feel more organized.

These are just a few of the many tasty benefits wrapped up in the resolution to pack more delicious lunches to take to work.

Truth is, I've known all the terrific reasons to pack lunch for quite some time, but I've never quite been able to put the plan in action. Day after day, I end up ordering takeout from the same three or four places near work.

But this year, I believe I've discovered the lunchbox grail: that essential key to making good lunches happen. It's planning ahead.

That's not quantum mechanics, I realize, but I'm pretty sure this one simple flaw is why I've largely failed at lunch packing for years. Boffo brown-baggging just doesn't happen in that pre-coffee morning zombie mode.

So watch out... This, dear friends, is the year I'm going to start packing.

I've broken the process down into five easy steps to make it achievable for me, and maybe for you, too.

Step One is identification of tasty, packable lunchtime candidates.

The successful lunch-maker needs a small arsenal of go-to lunch recipes with a few variations to keep it interesting. Here's a few of my favorite options for ease, flavor and portability:
  • Desktop Panini
  • Basic French Lentil Salad
  • Bahn Mi Sandwiches
  • Spicy Peanut Soba Noodles
  • Any Bean Salad

  • Real Simple also has a list of four takes on the Tuna Sandwich and Martha Stewart features a handful of fast, healthy soups.

    Step Two is gathering up the equipment.

    I've had too many lunch plans quashed by a lack of appropriate containers.

    While it's not necessary to have a designer lunchbox, I think you'll be more proud of your efforts (and make your coworkers more jealous) if your pack is cool.

    You'll also broaden your lunchtime options if you keep a couple of cold packs and an insulated thermos on hand.

    I've got some ideas in my gear shop if you need inspiration.

    Step Three is gathering up the ingredients.

    Keep lunch in mind while doing the weekly shopping. Whether that's extra celery for celery sticks, enough beans to double the soup recipe, a few necessary condiments or a pack of string cheese for snacking, lunch isn't going to happen if you don't plan the details.

    Step Four is putting it into the schedule.

    Packing lunch needs to be a priority. Wash salad greens and cut carrot and celery sticks on Sunday. Make a bean dip or a simple soup while you're waiting for dinner to cook. Pack up the containers the night before so everything's ready to go in the morning.

    Step Five is not leaving lunch on the counter (or in the fridge) when walking out the door to go to work.

    Kind of self-explanatory, but it's happened to me more often than I'd like to remember.

    Additional tips:

    There's 1001 ways to make a sandwich, so don't burn out on the same 'ol thing every day. Switch from sliced bread to a roll, baguette or a wrap, add a savory spread, a different pickle or a new kind of cheese to make the difference between something you look forward to eating and something that sits sadly at the bottom of the sack.

    Plan for leftovers. Cooking up a bigger batch of something on the weekend (soups, stews, roasts, curries, casseroles) is a classic way to make both lunches and dinners happen.

    Think about what travels well. Roasted vegetable, pasta, meat/fish and bean salads make particularly good choices for lunch packing... Since they're already dressed, there's less risk of spilling vinaigrette on your pants (or across the inside of your bag).

    So that's the jist of it: Plot, Equip, Gather, Schedule and Follow Through. Five steps to better brown bagging.

    Look for more resolutions in the days to come...

    To our health!
    Miss Ginsu

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    Recession-Proof Recipes: Apple-Bacon Chowdah

    As economic worries become yet worse and more frightening, what could be a better Recession-Proof Recipe this week than a soothing mug of chowder?

    Comforting, delicious, endlessly flexible and — oh yes! quite economical — chowder is there for you when your 401k looks sad and wilted.


    We talked about classic Manhattan and New England chowdah last January, but now that the season of summer corn is on the wane and the season of autumnal apples is on the rise, it seems appropriate to think about a combination of apples, corn and smoky bacon. Very nice for the crisp days of late summer-early autumn, don't you agree?
    Apple-Bacon Chowder (Makes about two quarts)
    4 slices bacon, diced
    1 medium onion, diced
    2 small or 1 large potato, diced
    3 ears sweet corn, kernels cut away (or use 16oz frozen corn)
    2 golden delicious apples, diced
    2 cups chicken stock
    1 1/2 cups whole milk
    1 1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
    1/2 tsp black pepper or cayenne pepper (optional)
    1/4 cup chopped parsley (optional)

    1. In a heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat, cook the bacon until it begins to brown, about 15 minutes.
    2. Add onion and cook an additional 10 minutes, keeping the bacon and onion moving to prevent uneven cooking.
    3. As the onion begins to look translucent, add the diced potato, corn kernels and diced apple pieces. Cook 10 minutes before pouring in the chicken stock and milk.
    4. Simmer 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Season to taste with the salt and black or cayenne pepper. Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired.

    If you like a thick chowder, purée about 1 cup of the soup in a blender or food processor before stirring it back into the pot, or simply use a stick blender to crush some of the potato and apple pieces.

    And if you're not a bacon person, just skip it entirely and use a little olive oil to cook down the onions. You could also dice a red pepper in place of the apples. See? Versatile. Easy. Tasty.

    Serve up a cup alongside a crisp green salad and a crust of bread. And it goes down easy with the last of the summer ales and lagers they're clearing off the grocery store shelves right now.

    So try not to think about the banking crisis. Enjoy your soup. And think about all the lovely, thrifty lunches you'll pack for yourself this week.

    Bon appetit!
    Miss Ginsu

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    The Problem with Chickpea Masala

    You know what the biggest problem with my Chickpea Masala is? I can't get it to look good. It smells great. It tastes wonderful. It looks... homely.

    Oh, sure. I can toss some chopped cilantro or some parsley over the top of it. But come on... that's just putting lipstick on a pig. (Or is that a dog? Who knows these days?) Curry is just a homely dish.

    Chickpea Masala

    This is really the problem with all the bowl-foods. Delicious, yes. Tasty, yes. Recession-proof? Of course. Easy to make on Sunday and then take to work as leftovers? Without a doubt.

    Just not good-lookin' enough for shmantzy guests, that's all. This is peasant cuisine.

    Still, that's not going to stop me from sharing the recipe. It's so quick, easy and good for work-a-day lunches, I can't resist its humble charms.

    Fast Chickpea Masala (Serves 2 (with leftovers) or 4)

    1 Tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
    1 medium-sized onion, halved and cut in 1/4" slices
    2 cloves garlic, minced or mashed to a pulp
    1 2" piece ginger, peeled and minced
    1 jalapeño, seeded and sliced thin (optional)
    2-3 Tbsp Masala Spices (see below) or a mix of your own
    1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
    1 15-oz can chickpeas (drained and washed)
    1 to 1 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
    3 cups cooked rice (for serving)

    Optional Garnishes
    Chopped cilantro
    Plain yogurt or cucumber raita

    1. Heat the oil/ghee over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the onion slices.

    2. Cook until the onion goes from white to translucent (about 10 minutes) and add in the garlic, ginger and jalapeño slices. Cook 5 minutes more.

    3. Add in the spice mixture. Cook an additional 3 minutes. The spices should begin sticking to the pan.

    4. Add the tomatoes and chickpeas. Lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes.

    5. Season to taste with the salt. (At this point, you may wish to add either a pinch of sugar, or a squeeze of lime juice, as needed, to please your palate.) Serve immediately with rice and garnishes, or pack up for work-week lunches.

    Masala Spice Mix

    1 Tbsp cumin seeds
    1 Tbsp coriander seeds
    1 tsp mustard seeds
    1 tsp black peppercorns
    2 cardamom pods
    1 tsp fennel
    2 whole cloves
    1/2 tsp cinnamon
    1/2 tsp turmeric

    It's best to use whole spices, toasting them in a pan and then grinding them up for this mix, but you can get away with ready-ground spices if that's all you can find. The turmeric, for example, is almost always found pre-ground, so if you're grinding, just add that at the end.

    If you're going to skip anything, don't skip the cumin and coriander. They're essential. The others are all negotiable. If you like more heat in your mix, add in some cayenne. I enjoy using fresh chilies when possible, so I like to leave it out.

    Store the surplus in an empty spice jar and use within a week or so.

    A pilaf of white basmati rice would obviously be the traditional choice to serve with this curry, but I've been liking the brown basmati lately. It has extra fiber and extra nuttiness.

    Happy Eating!
    Miss Ginsu

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    The Mysteries of Tomato-Watermelon Gazpacho

    I've known those who salt their watermelon, and those who sugar their tomatoes. I once thought these practices were madness.

    After culinary school, I become more flexible in my appreciation of these summer flavors. Yes, watermelon could get along happily in a savory salad. Yes, tomatoes could represent the sweet aspect of a dish.

    Tomato & Watermelon

    Once I'd gotten past the prejudices of my youth, I learned that tomatoes and watermelon could be great friends in salads.

    And yet, tomato and watermelon match-ups still seem like strange bedfellows to me. An odd couple.

    "But why is this pairing so strange?" I ask myself. They're both fruit. They grow and ripen together.

    In fact, under-ripe watermelons taste quite like cucumbers. Since I think nothing of combining cucumbers and tomatoes, tomato-watermelon dishes should be second nature.

    Then each summer tomato + watermelon is a minor culinary revelation. These cautious notions must be simply be old habits dying long, hard, tortured deaths.

    Tomato & Watermelon Gazpacho

    When I finally do take that terrifying leap and add, gasp! watermelon to my gazpacho... the result isn't horrifying at all. It's truly lovely.

    For that matter, this dynamic duo is economical. Since both are simultaneously in surplus at the same time, it's a quick (and rewarding) task to blend them up together into soup.
    Tomato-Watermelon Gazpacho (Makes about 6 cups)

    1/2 cup water or tomato juice
    2 medium tomatoes, quartered
    1 cup watermelon, seeded & cubed
    1 small cucumber, peeled and quartered
    1/4 small red onion
    1/2 jalapeño pepper (or substitute 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper)
    1 slice whole-grain bread, torn into small pieces
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 tsp fresh lime juice (optional)

    Optional Garnishes
    1-2 Tbsp cilantro or mint, chopped
    1 Tbsp small-diced cucumber
    1 Tbsp small-diced watermelon
    1 Tbsp crumbled fresh cheese or feta

    1. Combine water or juice, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, onion, 1/2 jalapeño, bread pieces and salt in a blender or food processor and purée smooth. (You may need to do this in batches.)

    2. Taste the gazpacho and adjust the seasoning with 1 tsp fresh lime juice and a little more salt, if desired.

    3. Chill one hour or until ready to serve (the flavor will improve overnight). Garnish with chopped herbs, mint, diced cucumber, diced watermelon and/or crumbled fresh cheese.

    I find that crunchy fresh-baked croutons are really nice in a gazpacho as well. Or go crazy and throw on some bacon bits. It's a flexible dish.

    This is actually a great dish for brown bagging. Just skip the garnish. It'll hold up well for a few hours without refrigeration and won't require on-site heating. Serve it with a salad for a lovely light lunch at some lunching locale of your choice. Like, say... the park.

    Miss Ginsu

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    Recession-Proof Recipes: Black Bean Soup

    Last week when I started up this series on good eating for bad financial times, I mentioned roasting, which magically makes just about anything tastier on the cheap. This week, I want to throw in a good word for beans.

    fresh chickpeas

    Packed with protein and fiber (nutritionists love 'em!), readily available, totally cheap (even cheaper if you soak and cook the dried ones), vegetarian-friendly and delicious for breakfast, lunch or dinner, beans are classic in haut cuisine and poverty fare alike.

    I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that legumes/pulses have sustained generations of people across this planet for thousands of years. Why not try to work a few extra into your diet?

    Here's ten classic ways to make beans a part of your week:

    1. Chili
    2. Lentil Soup or Salad
    3. Hummus
    4. Beans on Toast
    5. Bean Dip/Spread
    6. Channa Masala (Chickpea Curry)
    7. Minestrone
    8. Bean Burritos
    9. Vegetarian Cassoulet
    10. Beans & Rice

    And here's one more just for good measure: Black Bean Soup. It's what I'm eating this week. It's really easy to make this one vegetarian or meatetarian, as you prefer.
    Black Bean Soup

    2 cups dried black beans, washed
    1 bay leaf
    4 strips thick-cut bacon, diced OR 1 Tbsp olive oil*
    1 fresh jalapeƱo, sliced into rounds
    2 large onions, diced
    2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
    4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
    1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
    Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

    Sour cream or plain yogurt (optional), for serving
    Chopped cilantro or scallions (optional), for serving

    1. Soak the beans overnight.
    2. The next day cover the beans with additional water to bring the level by 1 inch above the beans. Add the bay leaf, cover and bring to a boil.
    3. Turn down the heat to a low simmer, and cook until the beans test tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
    4. *If using bacon, cook that now, remove it from the pan (to drain) when done, and use the bacon fat to cook the veggies instead of using olive oil. If making a vegetarian soup, add the olive oil to a deep skillet and heat over a medium flame.
    5. Add the onions and green peppers and sauté until softened, about 12 minutes. 6. Stir in the garlic and cook a few minutes more.
    7. Add the tomatoes and simmer 10 minutes.
    8. When the beans are tender, add in the vegetable mixture (and diced bacon, if using). Let simmer another 20 minutes.
    9. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, or refrigerate and reheat the following day to enjoy it after the flavors have melded a bit.

    Happy eating!

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    The World's Lunchboxes

    You may be aware that today marks Boxing Day, a tradition that's commonly celebrated in the UK and several of its former colonies.

    Dating back to the middle ages, the day after Christmas has traditionally been marked by the giving of gifts (boxed, of course) to employees and the poor.

    Boxing day also means post-Christmas sales (hooray!) and the start of a handful of sporting events. (Though, interestingly, boxing doesn't seem to be among them...)

    Boy Scouts boxing
    A cigarette collectors' card (published ca. 1903-1917), featuring boxing Boy Scouts.*

    One of the etymological explanations for Boxing Day roots in a tradition that had servants boxing up Christmas feast leftovers for their home visits and their masters eating boxed meals while the help was away.

    For me, all this brings to mind the great diversity of food boxes across the world. Just for a little Boxing Day fun, I'll illustrate a few solutions to the lunch-toting issue herein.

    Star Wars Lunchbox
    The Star Wars lunch box... a classic!

    In the modern U.S., the simple brown bag, the more deluxe insulated cooler bag and the metal or plastic lunch box are popular food transport solutions, though in a bygone era, people would have brought their food with them in baskets, pails or knotted kerchiefs.

    The interrupted picnic
    A detail from The Interrupted Picnic.*

    Pupils at Lunch, 1927, Tinela, Ala
    Pupils at Lunch with their lunch pails. Tinela, AL, 1927*

    In Japan, bento boxes, those cute, convenient multi-compartmental trays, were traditionally made with durable, beautiful woods and metals and wrapped for travel in a furoshiki cloth, which acted as a dual bag/place mat. Modern bento boxes are often made of disposable materials.

    Black Bento Box
    Black lacquered bento box from Pearl River

    Similar to the bento, the Indian tiffen-boxes (also called dabbas) are a multi-chambered lunch system, but while bentos are horizontally divided, tiffens are tiered.

    In India, tiffins/dabbas are carried by tiffin wallahs or dabbawalas, a crack team of heavyweight lunch-luggers, each toting loads averaging 175-200 lb.

    Blue Tiffen Box
    Multicolored plastic tiffin box via Pearl River

    It works this way: wives, servants or caterers pack tasty lunches into tiffins and give them to the wallahs, who transport them the hungry workers. What's really stunning is their accuracy rate — apparently, they average one mistake in every 16,000,000 deliveries.

    Honestly, I'd quite like a wallah. The food delivery culture is mighty in New York, but it's sure not like a lunch packed with homemade love.

    Anyone know of other lunch transport methods? Jars on heads? Fish in slings? If you know, I'd love to hear about 'em. If you've got anything, throw it down in the comments... in the meantime, a very happy Boxing Day to you!

    *Found via the superb NYPL.

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    Gazpacho redemption

    Sadly, one of my favorite local joints recently charged me $6 for the pleasure of a cup and a half of poorly made gazpacho... gazpacho with far too much raw onion and nearly no spice or salt.

    Worst, it just tasted flat. It needed a shot of acid. It came with a little sprinkle of chives, but no pita, no cracker, no toast tip. Alas!

    Above you see the gazpacho I was hoping for. Nicely spiced, mouth-wateringly zesty, with rich tomato flavor and hints of celery, cucumber and fresh jalapeño.

    All it took was a quick trip to the farmers' market and a spin through the blender. Some stuff out of the pantry... salt, pepper, a shot of lemon juice... Adjust seasoning and add a couple slices of awesome garlic cheese bread on the side.

    Heavenly. Inexpensive. Satisfying. A'la Scarlett O'Hara, I'm compelled to alert the world, "With god as my witness, ah will never suffer substandard gazpacho again!"

    Just Good Old Gazpacho (Serves 3-4)
    2 cups ripe, red tomatoes, roughly chopped
    1/2 cup green or yellow pepper, roughly chopped
    2 small or 1 large clove garlic
    1 medium cucumber, quartered
    1 jalapeño pepper, halved and seeds removed (optional)
    1/2 cup breadcrumbs or 1/2 slice stale bread, torn to pieces
    1 cup tomato juice
    1/3 cup olive oil
    1 Tbsp red or white wine vinegar (or substitute lemon juice)
    1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
    1 tsp dried oregano (or 1/2 tsp fresh oregano)
    1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
    Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

    Optional Garnish
    chopped cilantro, 1/2" cubes of cucumber, sliced green onion and/or cubed avocado

    1. In a blender or food processor, chop the tomatoes, peppers, garlic, cucumber and jalapeño, if using.
    2. Add the breadcrumbs or pieces, tomato juice, olive oil and vinegar. Pulse to incorporate.
    3. Stir in the chopped cilantro, oregano and Worcestershire.
    4. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to adjust to your desired flavor.
    5. Chill for at least three hours (or overnight). Garnish, if desired, and serve cold or at room temperature.

    As I mentioned, I served it with the garlic cheese bread I picked up at the farmers' market, but you can go with croutons, baguette or whichever loaf you love.

    Bon appetit!
    Miss Ginsu

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