Buttered Up: Lunchbox pasta
My lunch box was not a friend. I didn’t bond with it, would not look forward to hearing it snap open and found no pleasure in its content. Considering it a waste of my arm’s energy, I slugged it over to school reluctantly, with a new trick I had learned — the eye roll. The only thing I liked about it was that I’d choose a new one each year, reflecting my ever-morphing personality through brightly colored images glued onto boxed plastic.
In the first grade, I was dubbed a “cookie monster”, protesting against sandwiches until I was allowed to carry only cookies. That bit of excitement didn’t last long. The lunch box tradition died out as I got taller but a persistent packed lunch was shoved into my backpack pocket by mom; and when I’d return home, intact sandwich and bagged apple would be stuffed in secrecy into a deep corner of my desk, left to darken and rot.
Lunch boxes came back to haunt me in 2010. My two stepchildren, wanting to fit into their new school — a melting pot of nationalities, were heavily depending on me to do their lunch boxes justice, to compete with moms preparing tiffins packed neatly with fresh parathas, curried vegetables and a side of mango pickle. Sandwiches just weren’t going to do the trick when the kids are coming back with stories of snacking on seaweed with a Korean friend during recess.
So I pushed back with pasta salads, homemade burgers and juice boxes that doubled as ice packs on hot days; and on rainy days, a bowl of packed rice, slow-cooked beef and root vegetables then for later, a mini dessert muffin. On occasion, the leftover molokheyya would make an appearance, which apparently had been fed to many mouths hailing from different countries with the same plastic spoon.
It could be said that I am no one to encourage many Egyptian moms to put a little more thought into their kids’ lunchboxes because it may seem that I try hard only to compensate for the fact that I am not, in reality, my stepkids’ “real” mom. Yes, there is truth in that I am over-delivering, overreaching to try to please the hearts of two young ones that found themselves in my home, but what I have learned is that most children, when given the opportunity and the right circumstances, will enjoy a variety of different foods that we as adults might not think to feed them.
It’s tiring to see the same things on kids’ menus everywhere and now in their lunch boxes to replace the regular white bread Nutella sandwich — chicken nuggets, french fries and pizza. If Chinese children are gobbling up slices of baked tofu and wolfing down plates of kai-lan, and Indian children are scooping up mounds of coconut rice and fleshy bits from a fish head curry, what are we doing? If we’re a culture that enjoys eating so much, where is the depth? Why is there fear in training our children’s palate — an automatic “no, he/she won’t like this”?
What so many of us are sending to school is afterthought food, with little consideration of the boredom that ensues when eating the same things for a few long years. Here’s a different idea below and if you don’t like it, there are many other recipes and ideas on blogs and popular food websites about lunch boxes. Visit Lunchbox Blues, a blog where J.M. Hirsch chronicles 180 days of school meals as well as how his son grows to accept certain foods. You can go through Shirmiya’s blog, Happy Little Bento, where she outdoes us all with her delicate hand and creative presentation. If those don’t work for you, there’s always Googling “best lunch box ideas for kids”. Whatever it is, just do something different this school year.
Pesto Pasta Salad
2 cups of dry pasta (around 200 grams)
½ cup of basil pesto
½ cup of peas, cooked (around 75 grams)
1 medium-sized colored pepper, thinly sliced
½ a cup of seeded black kalamata olives (around 90 grams)
3 tablespoons of almonds, roughly chopped (around 30 grams)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
The juice of half a lemon
(Recipe adapted from Elise Bauer)
2 cups of basil leaves, fresh
⅓ cup of pine nuts
½ a cup of Roumy cheese, grated
½ a cup of olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
To make the pesto:
Combine the garlic, basil leaves and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse several times. Drizzle the olive oil into the food processor while continuing to blend. Pour in a thin stream until finished. Pulse until smooth then add the salt, pepper and cheese. Pulse 2 more times before pouring out.
For the pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil then add your dried pasta. Cook until tender but firm. When done, drain and set the pasta aside. In a separate bowl, combine the peas, olives, colored pepper and almonds then add the pasta. Toss and store in an airtight container. Put the pesto and lemon juice into a separate covered container. Refrigerate both. Remove from the refrigerator when it is time to pack. Whisk the pesto and lemon juice together before pouring it over the pasta and accompanying vegetables. Toss gently and separate servings for packing.