How to turn packed lunches into winter warmers
With a bit of home prep and an office kettle, there is a wealth of hot, healthy grub you can make at work, from noodle soups to chorizo couscous
Noodle soup in a jar. Photograph: Matt Russell for the Guardian
It has abruptly turned cold out and, just like that, not only are your socks too thin and your trousers too short, but your shop-bought BLT or leafy salad is decidedly not as warm and comforting as you need it to be. Office tea points being what they are, even a microwave might be too much to expect. But with a bowl with a lid, a bit of home prep – not more than you might for a standard, cold lunchbox – and a kettle, there is a wealth of hot grub you can make at work.
First things first, invest in a good, lidded, heatproof container. A metal camping pot, an ovenproof glass bowl, even an extra-large travel mug will do the trick.
Next, for food safety reasons, make sure anything you take to work is cool before you pack it. And, if you put it in the fridge when you get there, be sure to take it out ahead of time to come back up to room temperature before you use it. Any modicum of comfort from a swig of hot soup will be ruined if you chew on something cold.
Last, be bold and try new things. The recipes below are suggestions; they can be easily modified to suit what is in your fridge and store cupboard (they also have been given a smell factor, in case you are worried you might upset your colleagues). Quickly rehydrated noodles sit well in almost any soup, as does a bowlful of cooked pasta, rice or other grain. And soup bases come in many stripes: miso paste goes just as well with chilli (harissa, gochujang, sriracha, hot sauce, aleppo chilli flakes) as it does with tahini. The soft-boiled onsen tamago egg technique here is Japanese, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work in all sorts of other contexts: as an improvised eggs benedict, atop the bowl of chorizo couscous or indeed any of the soups and soup noodle bowlfuls below.
It’s best to let each bowlful sit a few minutes before eating, to allow the flavours to meld. And remember that garnishes, as always, are your friend: a slow-cooked stew is obviously going to be more satisfying than something rustled up in minutes at the office sink, but a sprinkling of crunch, spice or zest will go a long way to making up for what is lost in the haste. And besides, isn’t eating anything warm in the cold always a joy?
Cheat’s version of Ottolenghi’s chorizo and fennel couscous
At home, fry in olive oil 100g chorizo, 1 shallot, sliced, and ¼ bulb fennel, thinly sliced, with a pinch each of dried thyme and paprika, the zest of ¼ orange, one minced garlic clove and some fennel seeds; season with salt and pepper. Add in a handful of cherry tomatoes and cook until soft. Decant to a Tupperware. At work, mix ½ chicken stock cube with 240ml of hot water and pour over 180g of dried couscous, cover immediately and leave for five minutes until absorbed. Mix into the chorizo mix.
Smell factor: 5/10
Leek and Marmite soup
Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing, queens of the tasty lunch box, suggest frying a very finely sliced leek in olive oil with a sprig of rosemary and a crushed garlic clove, until soft and slightly caramelised. Decant into a Tupperware. At lunch, mix ½ chicken stock cube and ½ tsp Marmite into 500ml boiling water and pour over the leeks. Cover for five minutes then eat with a buttered crusty roll for dunking.
Smell factor: 4/10
Korean soup base
At home, fry up thinly sliced bacon, chicken or beef, or a serving of cubed semi-hard tofu, with one clove of garlic and one small knob of ginger, both minced, one dollop of gochujang chilli paste, some sesame oil and a dollop of miso, and adjust the flavour with soy sauce and sugar. Decant to a Tupperware and top with some parboiled sliced veg (green beans, asparagus, broccoli florets, carrot) and some finely sliced spring onion. At work, add 400ml boiling water and mix well.
Smell factor: 5/10
Pack a serving of steamed short-grain rice with shredded salmon (grilled or poached) or tofu with steamed veg, and season with salt and soy sauce to taste. Top with a small handful of crushed Japanese rice crackers, a salted pickled umeboshi plum and a large pinch of finely sliced nori seaweed. At work, pour a mugful of green tea over the mix.
Smell factor: 3/10
At home, in a heatproof lidded jar, place 1 tbsp miso (look for brands with added dashi stock), a handful of spinach, a large pinch of beansprouts, some thinly sliced deep-fried tofu or cubed fresh tofu and ½ spring onion, finely sliced. At work, add a cup of boiling water and stir well to dissolve the miso.
Smell factor: 2/10
Chilli and miso noodle soup
Anna Jones combines miso and brown rice vermicelli in a quick spicy bowlful: place one nest of rice vermicelli in a bowlful of boiling water for three minutes then drain and place in a Tupperware with a knob of ginger, minced, 1 tbsp white miso paste, 1 tsp harissa and some tamari. Top with spring onion, carrot, sugar snap peas, kale and a red chilli, all finely sliced, and scatter with toasted sesame seeds. At work, boil the kettle and pour over enough water to cover everything, mix well and squeeze half a lime over to finish.
Smell factor: 2/10
At home fry up a serving of thinly sliced chicken with some thinly sliced onion and daikon, one small knob of ginger, minced, a couple each of cloves and star anise and a pinch of cinnamon, and season with sugar, fish sauce and salt to taste. Decant to a Tupperware and top with bird’s eye chilli, red onion and spring onion, all finely sliced, some fresh coriander leaves and a twist of black pepper. At work, place 75g of dry flat pho noodles in a bowlful of boiling water and cover until tender – about 10 minutes – then drain and add to your Tupperware. Dissolve ½ chicken stock cube in 500ml water in a mug, pour over everything and mix well. Squeeze over ½ lime to finish.
Smell factor: 7/10 (it’s the fish sauce)
At home, combine 60ml dashi fish or kelp stock with ½ tbsp mirin and 1½ tbsp soy sauce, and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, add a pinch of bonito fish flakes (optional) and leave for one minute. Decant ¼ of this sauce (the rest will keep for five days in the fridge) into a small lidded jar, with half a spring onion, finely sliced. At work, an hour before lunchtime, place two eggs in a teapot, fill with boiling water and put the lid on, then wrap the teapot snugly in a tea towel. After an hour, remove the eggs and gently crack open, slide them into a bowl, and pour the sauce over.
Smell factor: 5/10