Bento 101 (Getting into the Bento Making Habit) Part 4:The Power Of the Bento Stash

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Welcome to Part 4 (which is actually the 5th lesson) of Bento 101! If you have been following along on schedule, by now you should have packed a bento and brought it along to work or school. How was the experience for you? Was it too much work or doable? Did you run into any problems during transit (such as your box leaking) or during lunch (such as your co-workers trying to steal your lunch or making comments)? Above all, is it something you see yourself doing regularly? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you're well on your way to becoming a bento convert.

The theme of this lesson is about something that will enhance your bentos in many ways...

The importance of having a stash

A bento or meal stash (or johbisai/jobisai in Japanese) is a collection of premade foods that are stashed away in your freezer, pantry and refrigerator. Having a bento stash is the best way to make packing a bento easier and faster, and to make your bentos more varied. And it's your ultimate backup for when you're too busy or tired to cook.

I'm often asked how I manage to pack a bento in 5-10 minutes. Are those estimates unreasonable? I don't think so. It's not like I'm a super-fast cook or anything like that - it's just a matter of being prepared.

Let's look at some of my 5-10 minute-assembly bentos to see how it's done with help of the Stash.

This is a fairly standard bento with rice and mini chicken burgers. If I assembled everything from scratch, it would easily take me 30, 40 minutes or more.

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Instead, I assembled it in less than 10 minutes. The main protein component is mini chicken burgers, which I had made in some quantity. We had some of the chicken burgers (formed into a bigger size than for bentos) for dinner one night, then I'd stored the rest, formed into mini-burgers, in the freezer. I defrosted them as described in the recipe in a frying pan and added a simple glaze with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. The other made-ahead component is what I call cooked to death peppers. This keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, so I just make a batch (especially when peppers are on sale) and store them in an airtight container. Even the rice is premade and frozen in portions, although I did jazz it up a bit and make it into carrot rice in the microwave. The greenery came from my container herb garden.

Speaking of the chicken burgers though, I actually made two recipes at once and stashed some of both. The other bento that I made from that ground chicken batch was this:

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This bento is even simpler than the previous one. Basically I used the dumplings from my freezer stash, cooked green beans from the night before, and more rice from the freezer stash, this time decorated with a bit of furikake (rice sprinkles).

Speaking of furikake: if you like rice-based bentos, furikake is a great staple to have around. You can buy furikake at any Japanese grocery store, or make your own - I have a lot of recipes for homemade furikake on the site. (I've included a moister kind of 'thing to sprinkle on rice' that's usually called soboro in that category too, since you can use them in similar ways.)

An example of a very easy bento made with pre-made and stashed furikake is this one, from the Guy Does Bento series:

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We make salted salmon and salmon furikake at least once a week. Once the salted salmon is done we store it in the freezer, but the furikake lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator if well covered, and we usually manage to use it all up in that time. So this bento is just a matter of mixing up the sushi rice, cutting up some vegetables and piling on the furikake.

The Power Of The Stash does not just apply to Japanese style bentos of course.

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This bento features two very 'stashable' items: chili and muffins. Muffins are my other favorite thing to stash, besides furikake: if you make them in the mini-size, you can just grab them out of the freezer and they'll be defrosted and edible by lunchtime - or, you can warm them up a bit if you have access to a microwave. I have several packable muffin recipes, even a low carb, gluten-free one; most are savory or go well with savory foods, although my sweet (but not too sweet) Earl Grey Tea muffins may be the most popular.

I have a ton of recipes on this site for 'stashable' food, especially in the johbisai category for you to try. Besides that though, think of the foods you like (referring back to the first assignment) that can be kept for some time.

The three ways of building up a stash

  1. Cook a bit more when you're cooking anyway. This is just an extension of setting aside some of what you cook for dinner. Whenever you're cooking something, just make a bit more of it, and store the 'leftovers'. Muffins are a great example: just bake a double batch, have batch one within a couple of days or so and freeze the rest. This is the least additional-work, almost painless way to build up a stash.
  2. Make some things in batches during the weekend or when you have a block of free time. If you like to get a lot of things done around the house on the weekend, you may consider setting aside some time to stash-building. for example, Gomashio (sesame salt) is really useful to have on hand for all kinds of foods - but it takes a bit of time to make, so you might want to make it on the weekend rather than on a busy weekday. This does require some extra effort, but I think you'll find it well worth your time.
  3. Be on the lookout for stashable foods at the store. When you shop at the supermarket with an eye towards building up your stash, all kinds of possibilities will open up to you. I've listed some of my favorite storebought stash items here, but I'm sure you can think of your own. This part can actually be fun!

Your assignment this week

This is Assignment no. 5.

  • Cook or buy at least one item that can be 'stashed' in the freezer for future bentos.
  • Cook or buy at least one item that can be 'stashed' in the refrigerator for at least a week, for future bentos.
  • Cook or buy at least one item that can be 'stashed' in a kitchen cabinet/pantry (i.e. at room temperature) for future bentos.

You can go with all-cooked, all-storebought items or a mix.

To give you an example of an all-cooked set of stash items: black bean mini-burgers (freezer), miso marinated eggs (refrigerator), spicy curry peanut furikake (pantry).

An example of a storebought set of stash items: frozen veggie burgers like Boca burgers (freezer), Mini Babybel chees (fridge), almonds (pantry).

If you're sharing your lessons, please report back in the comments or on Facebook with your stash items!

(A note for people who wil be participating in the Japanese Cooking 101 course on JustHungry: there will be a one week overlap, but the this one is your last formal assignment for Bento 101. Ther last lesson will be a summary and wrapup, so no worries about too much homework. ^_^)