Become a dab hand at dining al desko
Trying to save money on office lunches? Tired of bringing sandwiches from home that curl up and die by 11am? We asked five food experts to come up with nutritious solutions for a week of desktop dinners. RÓISÍN INGLEcooked and sampled the results
Day one: Super duper
The Pepperpot Café ( thepepperpotcafe.com) in Dublin’s Powerscourt Townhouse is a haven for fans of home-cooked food. Given the amount of soup they sell every day, owners Dervla James and Marian Kilcoyne supplied this recipe for a hearty broth.
Organic spiced root vegetable soup with yoghurt and toasted coriander seeds
Served with soda and treacle bread.
2 medium organic onions
3 organic spuds
1 organic swede
2 large organic carrots
2 organic parsnips
2 cloves of roasted garlic
2 tsp coriander seeds (toasted and crushed, reserve some for garnish)
1 tsp cumin seeds (toasted and crushed)
Glenisk low fat natural yoghurt as a garnish
Wash, peel and chop all your vegetables. Roast the garlic in the oven for approximately 15 minutes.
Melt the butter in a large pot, until lovely and foamy. Add the onions, with a large pinch of salt. Then add the other vegetables and stir continuously for just a minute to release all the flavours. Add your crushed seed mix, plus a large pinch of freshly ground black pepper and cover with a lid. Allow the vegetables to sweat in the pot, before adding the fresh stock (a low-salt shop bought stock will also do). Bring to the boil and simmer until all the vegetables are nice and soft when poked with a knife.
Blend the mixture, adding more water or stock if needed. Season to taste. Allow it to cool before transferring to portion-sized plastic containers. This soup can be frozen when cooled. Simply remove from the freezer the night before work, pop it in a bag, and reheat it when you’re ready.
Irish soda bread with treacle and pumpkin seeds
340g wholemeal coarse flour
115g strong baker’s flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
40g pumpkin seeds
1 pint buttermilk
Approximately 6 tbsp full fat milk
Sieve the bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and combine with all the other dry ingredients. Fluff up with your hands to incorporate air into the mix. With a wooden spoon, mix in the pint of buttermilk and add the wholemilk in two to three glugs, until a soft, well-mixed dough is formed. Pour the bread mix into a butter-greased tin and bake at 200 degrees for around an hour.
To check the bread, knock it out of the tin and tap the base; if it sounds hollow the bread is ready. Allow it to cool on a wired rack.
The bread can be sliced into portions, placed in a freezer-proof bag and frozen. The bread can also be taken out the night before work and it will be defrosted by morning.
“We think that homemade soup and bread are ideal for taking to your desk as they are simple, convenient and economical,” says Dervla James. “Also soup has been proven to keep you full for longer and is a great way to get your daily nutrients.”
The toasted cumin and coriander seeds elevate this from the kind of hum-drum vegetable soup that might leave you running to the canteen for something with a bit more oomph. A colleague claimed mine was under-seasoned but the toasted coriander was popping with flavour in my mouth, so my only thought was that I might have overdone it on the seeds.
This was a beautifully tasty, nutritious start to the week. I do have three confessions though: I forgot to put in parsnips; my veg weren’t organic; and while I tried to make the bread something went awry so I used shop-bought stuff. I’ll fail better next time.
Day two: The brainy no-brainer
Healthy eating food guru and writer Susan Jane White ( susanjanewhite.com) says this recipe should have my brain cells dancing by the end of the day. She is a big fan of egg yolks for their “seismic brain-charging abilities” while mackerel is high in omega-3, “known to bolster brain chemistry as well as subdue inflammatory conditions like hay fever, Alzheimer’s, depression, eczema, asthma, and sports injuries”. No pressure then.
Susan’s Superfood Salad
Handful of baby Irish potatoes
2 large eggs
1 cooked, smoked mackerel fillet
Handful of fresh rocket or watercress
Good glug of your favourite olive oil
1 small unwaxed lemon
Scrub and wash the baby potatoes, cover in cold, salted water, and bring to the boil for approximately 15 minutes. Pierce them with a fork to check whether they are cooked. For the last five minutes of cooking the potatoes, add the eggs to cook simultaneously, a nifty time-saver. Once the eggs are boiled and the potatoes are cooked, drain and discard the cooking water, and allow both to cool. If you’re feeling particularly lazy, use vacuum-packed beetroot in place of potatoes so there’s no cooking involved.
Meanwhile, flake the mackerel fillet into a bowl with your chosen salad leaves, olive oil, the juice of half the lemon and the lemon zest. Toss everything together gently, halving the potatoes to help infuse the flavours, and divide into paper deli boxes for lunch the next day.
“You’ll find smart recyclable containers by the salad counters in food stores and delicatessens,” says Susan Jane White. “Politely pillage them on your next shopping trip.”
This was easy-peasy to prepare in 20 minutes before heading into work. And even though I undercooked the eggs slightly and I couldn’t find an unwaxed lemon in my local grocer’s, the whole thing was a taste sensation from start to finish.
Zingy lemon, creamy potatoes, peppery rocket and smoky mackerel. My colleagues weren’t thanking me for the eggy smell but I would do this again any day of the week. I don’t feel more intelligent but it did keep me going until dinner that evening. Top marks.
Day three: The veggie special
Denis Cotter of Cork’s Café Paradiso ( cafeparadiso.ie) does things with vegetables that win over even committed carnivores. But as much as I love his food, I am perturbed by the long list of ingredients and daunted by the fact that I’ve never heard of cavolo nero (it’s black cabbage, apparently). But then being adventurous is kind of the point of this exercise. This recipe is from his new cookbook For the Love of Food.
Squash, kale and chickpea tagine with spiced croutons and yoghurt
400g winter squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
1 large red onion, halved and thickly sliced
200g cavolo nero, green kale or cabbage, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 fresh green chillies, thinly sliced
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes, including juice
200ml vegetable stock or water
Zest of two oranges
6 dried apricots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of dried cherries or cranberries
1 x 400g tin cooked chickpeas
2 tablespoons each of chopped fresh parsley and coriander
Juice of 1 lemon
4 slices day-old bread
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, ground
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
4 dried birdseye chillies, ground
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. To make the croutons, tear the bread into small pieces and toss them in an oven dish with the spices and a sprinkling of olive oil. Season with salt and roast in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until crisp. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
In an oven dish, toss the squash in a little olive oil and roast in the oven for 30 minutes, until tender and beginning to caramelise. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot, and sauté the onion for five minutes over a medium heat. Add the kale, garlic and spices and cook for two minutes more. Add the tomatoes, stock, orange zest, dried fruit and chickpeas, and bring to a boil. Stir in the squash. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the herbs and lemon juice and remove from the heat. Season with salt.
“Bringing a little bag of croutons and a small container of yoghurt means you can add texture and richness to your lunch right there at your desk,” says Denis Cotter. “This will make four generous portions and if you make a bigger batch you can keep portions in the fridge for days or in the freezer for weeks. The croutons will keep for a week in an airtight container. As well as microwaveable plastic containers, you might consider getting one of those lovely wide thermos flasks that keep your food warm, rather than needing to be reheated.”
Denis Cotter’s ears must have been burning as I ran around the kitchen gathering up the 20 ingredients. “This better be worth it, Cotter,” I thought as I made croutons and roasted squash and chopped kale and sent someone foraging for chickpeas. When I finally got it bubbling on the stove, the house smelled like a Moroccan souk. At the desk the next day, it was wonderful to tuck into a lunch that had so many different, identifiable flavours. The croutons soaked up all the fruity, stewy goodness and left a lovely taste in the mouth. Hard work but well worth the effort.
Ciaran Crawford, the chef at Dublin’s Ukiyo restaurant ( ukiyobar.com) recommends this simple chicken noodle salad.
Again, there are a few too many ingredients for my liking but I love the idea of noodles al desko.
Fifteen-minute Asian noodle salad
2 x 150g chicken fillet, thinly sliced
1 packet of ramen instant noodles
1 small red onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced
1 small cucumber, split lengthways, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, quartered, cored and thinly sliced
1 small bag of baby spinach, washed and drained well
1 bunch of spring onion, finely sliced at an angle
2-3 tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce
2-3 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
2-3 tbsp sesame oil (light)
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
In a small pot of water add the sachet from the ramen noodles and the rice wine vinegar and bring to the boil. When it is boiling, add the chicken and poach until cooked, which should take four to five minutes. Remove from the heat, add the noodles and leave in the water until they are just tender. Strain any excess liquid and leave to cool. To assemble the salad, combine the chicken, noodles and vegetables, add the sauces and toss to mix well. Finish with the sesame oil and leave in the fridge overnight.
“This will keep for up to three days in airtight container,” says Ciaran Crawford. “For a veggie version just leave out the chicken.
I needn’t have worried about too many ingredients. This was a cinch to make and an absolute joy to scoff. All those Asian flavours mingled overnight in the fridge to create a gorgeous, fresh-tasting lunch that was the envy of all desk occupants within sniffing distance. Yum.
Day five: Lazy comfort lunch
After a week of tongue tickling flavours and endless chopping, I find myself craving something a little less adventurous that also requires minimum work. I ask chef and cooking instructor David Rice from Cook’s Academy in Dublin ( cooksacademy.com) to come up with a tasty pie using shop-bought pre-rolled pastry.
Easy Peasy Duck Pie
4 cooked duck legs or 1 whole cooked duck. (Use chicken for a cheaper alternative)
2 finely diced shallots
1 finely diced carrots
1 finely diced potato
150g frozen peas
1 tbsp chopped thyme leaves
3 tsp butter
3 tsp plain flour
400ml beef stock
1 large packet pre-rolled puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Roast the cooked duck for five to 10 minutes. Remove and let it cool slightly. Shred the meat into a bowl and set aside. Add the butter, diced potato, shallots and carrots to a saucepan and gently sweat the vegetables until they begin to soften.
Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Add the beef stock slowly while continuously mixing the veg. Let this beef sauce thicken and come to the boil. Reduce to a simmer for five to eight minutes and add the duck, peas and chopped thyme. Season the mix, set it aside and let it cool for around an hour. When the mix is cool cut four discs from the pre-rolled puff pastry using a saucer as a guide. Divide the meat between each of the pastry discs, placing a mound in the centre of each disc. Eggwash the edges of the pastry and fold it in half, sealing in the meat so you have a half-moon shape. Eggwash the pie and pierce a small hole in the top. Bake for 20 minutes in your preheated oven until golden and crisp.
“You can eat it straight away or leave to cool and bring to work the following day and give it a blast in the microwave,” says David Rice.
It took me a while to track down the duck, but I eventually found a whole cooked bird from the Silver Hill range in Superquinn, which cost €14.95. (Using cooked chicken makes for a much cheaper pie.) I whizzed all the veg in the food processor instead of chopping so, with the pre-rolled pastry and the pre-cooked meat, this was really easy to make.
Due to my lack of experience with pastry, pre-rolled or otherwise, my pies weren’t the prettiest in the world but as a homemade lunch they ticked every box: tasty, easy to bring to work and satisfying.
Box clever: Al desko eating kit
Box Appetit lunch box with sandwich box and sauce pot (€20), Designist
Lunch Box Revolution cook book (€7), Designist
La Playa 1.5l food container with jars (€29.99), Great Outdoors
Aladdin Bento Lunch Box (€14.99), from Great Outdoors, greatoutdoors.ie