I was asked on Tumblr about some great recipes I would recommend trying out for a yummy bento! I started to post a reply...and then 1,000 words later...I realized I better make these into blog posts.
I don't usually talk about cooking, so if you aren't interested, just ignore my next series of posts LOL. But hopefully it's interesting to you guys. I have spent almost the whole past year going from knowing barely how to cook, to becoming quite comfortable with Japanese cooking. I'm dividing my posts as follows:
I make Bo bento each day for work. For me at this point, I mainly stick to bento that can be easily made daily and mostly healthy. I get really excited by cute charaben (the really fancy kawaii ones) but it takes so much time to let everything look like that. Often, those bentos are limited by their appearance too--so it is harder to control how healthy it is, and it will consume more time to plan.
Also, at this point I have been focusing on learning Japanese cooking (and some Chinese) so I’d prefer to first perfect my recipes and then try to do charaben occasionally. (In the past I pictured myself trying to make a really cute bento--and having it both not turn out AND not taste very good LOL)
Bento can incorporate any style of cooking and any culture you prefer. I absolutely love Japanese homestyle cooking, so that is why I choose to focus on it opposed to American dishes. Bo likes Japanese food as well--but I also make some Chinese dishes too. My weekly groceries needs are simplified by sticking to Japanese and Chinese cooking--the ingredients, spices, vegetables and cuts of meat are similar. So I actually end up cooking pretty much Asian meals and barely any Western dishes! (But that’s just me. I waste less food by doing this.)
Now, if you are starting out with bento, and all these different Japanese foods and cooking are too time consuming or challenging, simply make a bento with the foods you know and already love. There are tons of bento websites you can find inspiration for Western bento. Sandwiches, fruits, and simple snack sides work great!
If you are focusing on Japanese bento, here is a list of what I consider to be some great classics to start out with. Try searching these in tumblr or google.jp and you'll see some great bento ideas using these dishes!
1. Bento burgers (バーガー）
I have several favorite types of burgers I make. The bento ones are smaller than a big American burger with bread and toppings. It's usually a little ground meat patty with a juicy sauce to coat. Some varieties I like to make are:
Basic bento burger (includes ingredients such as ground pork, panko, milk, egg white) I got started with the bento burger recipe from the Just Bento cookbook. You can change it up by adding green onions inside, creating a teriyaki coating, or making it spicy!
Tofu burger (includes drained tofu--either microwaved, boiled, or set out to drain naturally) You can alter this basic recipe by adding in some ground pork or chicken and veggies. With the tofu, you have to make sure your recipe isn't too wet or it will fall apart. Some cornstarch or egg white can help with this.
You can use any fish you like. I like to use cod or salmon. I used to think fish patties were some fancy thing, but its quite easy! They can be altered similarly to the ones above.
Green onion & pork mini burgers, onigiri, tamagoyaki and green bean soboro
To cook any of these, you simply mix the ingredients, heat a pan with some oil (this may be more important for the tofu burger or lean meat), lightly brown each side, then add some water and steam cook until the water is gone! Then I add in some soy and mirin (and some sugar works too) and let it thicken and coat the burgers.
2. Tonkatsu (とんかつ)
You can make tonkatsu with pork loin or chicken breast. Maybe try to get loin with a little fat so it is not too tough. I've heard tenderloin works well too. Usually you trim excess fat from the meat, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then coat with egg and flour, then pat on the panko. From this point they can be deep fried. If you are looking for a healthier option, toast the panko in a pan with some olive oil and maybe some garlic powder and salt. Follow the regular steps, but instead, bake in the oven. This recipe is great when you make Katsu-don because the deep fried flavor isn't as important as if you are eating it plain with tonkatsu sauce. (Katsu-don is a donburi, or a dish served over rice. It's a dish that often has a juicy, soupy sauce from dashi stock, and soft set eggs. The dish is served on rice because all those delicious juices seep into the hot rice and taste so great!)
For bento, I usually serve tonkatsu on cabbage topped rice with some Japanese mayo and tomatoes.
Tonkatsu served on nori topped rice with tonkatsu sauce, with cabbage, edamame, and bunny apples.
3. Shogayaki (しょうが焼き)
Shogayaki is ginger flavored pork loin. It is marinated in sake and ginger juice, and then quickly pan fried and coated with soy. I recommend Runnyrunny999's recipe. It is the best I've made. Again, try to get loin with a little fat. My butcher's cut of loin can be really dry.
Shogayaki served on cabbage with mayo over rice (ignore my Japanese misspelling)
4. Teriyaki (照り焼き)
Really simple. I recommend using skinless chicken thighs. Chicken breast is just not as juicy. I cut the chicken into small pieces and recommend marinating in sake. There are many variations but generally you need sake, sugar and soy. The sugar is really important so that the sauce carmelizes. Mirin or honey can also be alternatives for the sugar--honey has a great consistency. Coating the chicken with some flour will also help crisp it up with the thick sauce on top. So basically you marinate the chicken, cook each side in a pan (I do not turn them over until the first side browns), remove from pan, caramelize the sauce, coat the chicken with flour or starch, return to pan to coat! Sesame seeds on top taste great too.
Teriyaki served on cabbage with mayo and tomato over rice!
5. Chicken Karaage (唐揚げ）
Oh, so many variations! But Karaage is basically fried chicken. I like to make curry karaage! I usually just use a fry pan instead of getting out the deep fryer.
Karaage with bacon-garlic green beans, with bunny apple side.
6. Soboro (そぼろ)
Soboro is a dish with small "minced" ingredients like ground meat or finely scrambled egg or tofu. I like to make pork soboro with ginger, soy and mirin. Simply brown the meat with finely cut ginger (you can also use some sake) then add in some soy and mirin! Green onions are also great in this. This is great on top of rice or as an onigiri filling. (And you can pretty much fill a gyoza wrapper with this too.) You can also make soboro veggies, which make a great side dish! I recommend using en.cookpad.com for finding soboro recipes. Personally, I don't add additional sugar to my soboro, I only use some mirin.
1. Kinpira (きんぴら）
My absolute favorite. This dish uses julienned (thinly sliced) vegetables. My favorite uses carrots, konbu, and gobo. You can use any combination of vegetables such as: cabbage, daikon, or even potato. The important thing is to use sesame oil to cook the veggies, and then season it with mirin and soy. (Optionally add in some dashi stock until absorbed). I like to add in sesame seeds as well. Some recipes will add in additional sugar but I don't like it too sweet. You can also add in extra sesame oil at the end. I prefer to eat kinpira after it is cooled--which is why it is a perfect bento side! Again, cookpad is a good resource for kinpira recipes. I generally like to use about a half teaspoon of sesame oil, with two parts mirin to one part soy.
Simmered mackerel, carrot/konbu/gobo kinpira, apple bunnies, and matcha cupcake
2. Tamagoyaki (卵焼き）
Tamagoyaki is a rolled up egg omelette. There are so many variations. You can make it with plain eggs if you wish, but normally a bit of soy, mirin, or brown sugar is added in. Vegetables can be added or even sheets of nori in between each layer. I recommend watching some videos on how this is done. Search cookpad for plenty of tamagoyaki ideas.
3. Apple bunnies (うさぎりんご）
If you are new to bento, and want to try making a kawaii bento, apple bunnies is a great place to start. It won't take too much time. I recommend watching some videos on this to understand how it is done. Generally, I cut an apple into four parts. I cut a rounded section out of each piece to remove the core. Then for the bunny ears, flip it over to the skin side. Make two shallow cuts for the ears. Because I'm scared to cut my fingers, at this point I flip it over again, and lightly cut along the skin until the little piece of skin comes off. I'm guessing this doesn't really make sense, so watch some videos! My way is a little abnormal.
Miso yaki onigiri, my favorite!
Each bento I make for Bo always has rice. He is originally from southern China where rice with each meal is the norm. (As opposed to in the North, noodles are more common.) So, for the rice portion, if it is a dish with juice, I put the rice underneath it. If I make something less juicy (therefore less seasoning on the rice) I either put some homemade furikake on top, or make onigiri.
Look forward to a post about my favorite onigiri. Many of these main dishes can be put inside onigiri--such as the soboro or even the karaage! Just check out cookpad for some great recipes. (My recipe post may be helpful for this too).
Tell me your bento favorites! I'd love to hear!
Mary ´◡` ♡