Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Survivors guide for packing Bento box

There have been some common questions being asked about how to pack bento and the safety and contamination of food packing. I am no expert and I too have my concerns because it directly affects my children’s wellbeing for whom I pack Bento boxes for, daily. I can, however share some tips with you on how I work my Bentos every morning.

Several pointers to remember:

  • Bento requires cooking in small quantities.
  • Pots and pans should be smaller in size.
  • Work with tongs and chopsticks to pick and transfer food.
  • Have to be fast and efficient, so all ingredients and utensils should be available and easily accessible. (You should not be climbing chairs to get a pot out or running to the store to get the Salad spinner etc.)
  • Each morning's menu must be planned on a weekly basis or at least the day before to ensure that all ingredients or food stuff are available.

My routine:
  • Wash my hands,
  • I pick up two chopping boards and two knives, rinse with hot water from the flask (habit I picked up from my mother).
  • Pick up some forks and spoons, tongs, chopsticks and small bowls and whatever I need to use – rinse them with hot water.

Working with Raw Vegetables or fruits:
  • Wash the vegetables or fruits well, scrub and skin where necessary.
  • Pluck or cut them and dunk into a container of salt water (another habit I picked up from mum).
  • Prepare dressing or get other ingredients out from fridge e.g. cheese, mayo
  • Get other ingredients: Olive oil, pepper and salt, Balsamic vinegar, anchovies, etc. etc. All these should be readily available.
  • Spin-dry the vegetables or fruits with a Salad spinner and viola, all is ready for dressing.

Working with Cooked Vegetables:
  • Prepare all the necessary vegetables and soak in a container of salted water.
  • Spin-dry the vegetables to cook last. (i.e. get ready all the other food for the bento before cooking the vegetables).
  • If blanching the veggies, boil water in a small container, add little salt and preferably no oil unless cooking with Spinach or veggies that require oil to improve it's texture. Otherwise, less or none is best.
  • After cooking, immediately transfer into a sieve or strainer to rid the liquids. Spread out the veggies and stand under a fan on high speed to cool down the veggies to be ready for packing.

Working with leftovers:
  • I like to freeze my leftover food in individual portions in flat, broad containers so that it's easy to defrost.
  • Take leftovers from the freezer the night before use and leave in the fridge for defrosting.
  • I don't normally use the microwave for defrosting but that's up to the individual.
  • Toss the defrosted leftovers into a small pot and cook till it comes to a boil.
  • Quickly transfer into a flat metal plate and cool under high speed fan. (remember to use place mat for the hot plate).

Working with fresh food cooking:

Sometimes, I fry pre-marinated chicken in the mornings. Then I have to de-bone the chicken with a fork and knife and cool it down ready for packing. This is a little challenging because I have about 30 minutes to get the bento boxes ready.

I never prepare the bento boxes the night before to go in the morning.

Occasionally, I deep fry spring rolls which has been prepared during the weekend and frozen. I normally have two pots of oil for these purposes. One pot of oil for the stronger flavored foods and another for the milder flavored foods.

For Spaghetti white sauces, I normally prepare it the night before. Frozen white sauce is yuckky so I never freeze it. If I prepare it the morning itself, I'll do less cooking of other foods for the Bento and so it could just be fruits, biscuits, pasta and a frozen bottle of juice for the Bento box.

Food that I freeze:
  • All Japanese noodles e.g. Cha Soba, Buckwheat Soba, Udon (mind you, not the fresh type), Dipping sauces for noodles and tempura.
  • Roast duck meat (cut and ready for use).
  • Grated Parmesan and Cheddar cheese
  • Bacon and sausages.
  • Bolognaise sauce, (I pre-boil spaghetti pasta the night before and keep in the fridge).
  • All types of fish ball, fish cakes (Kamaboko) - Japanese or local.
  • Pre-simmered, deep-fried tofu pockets for Inari Sushi, Kampyo, simmered mushrooms and other ingredients for sushi so that it's always at hand and available. (I will cook the tamagoyaki one day ahead because it's quite simple to do and doesn't require long hours of simmering).

Take note:
  • Use one cutting board and knife for cutting the dry stuff e.g. bread, cheese, cooked dry foods, fruits, veggies like cucumbers or carrots.
  • Use the other one for 'wet or oily' foods e.g fried chicken, sausages, spring rolls.
  • Try not to save time or washing by using one cutting board and knife.
  • Wash hands again if it gets oily or sticky from all the cutting, alternatively handle with a fork to 'hold down" the food for cutting.

Packing the Bento Boxes:

When all the food is cooled and ready for packing, I visually decide which bento box to use that morning and I will take out the Bento boxes. Rinse with hot water and wipe dry.

I have a box filled and ready with all the bento accessories like food dividers, small containers, shoyu bottles etc, etc.

Then I will decide which food item will go on which level and which part of the bento box using which divider or packaging. If there are spaces in between, I stuff them with single packed marshmallows, raisins, occasionally with candies or chocolates and perhaps biscuits.

From my children's past experience, as long as the food does not remain in a 'hot' condition and is eaten within four hours, there has not been any experience of the food going bad. In fact we've not had that scare before. Thank God! Sometimes I pack two bentos for Daughter #1 because she stays back for extra curricular activities and it's like six hours and the food is still okay. Of course on those days the second bento would not contain food like tuna mayo or potato salads. I'd go for noodles or fried rice, dried foods like sandwiches and biscuits etc.

If there are worries about the food turning bad, you could freeze a bottle of juice or water just to keep the bento in a cool condition. There are chemical ice packs and anti-bacterial sheets that you can place on the food to avoid contamination and food turning bad.

I cook a lot with garlic and onions and that in itself 'kills' bacteria. I've read sites that encourage you to swipe the bento box with a piece of garlic or ginger but I've not tried that. I try to maintain some hygenic habits and cooking methods, pray that with all the love that I've put into my cooking, my kids will enjoy the fruits of my effort and be safe.

Edited and updated: 19 July 2008

Bento #29

The Bento box on top is filled with Focaccia bread with a tub of cold pressed extra virgin Olive oil and Balsamic vinegar.

The right Bento box contains half a citrus fruit and some skewered kyuri, crabstick and tamagoyaki.


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