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Monday, April 4, 2011

Lunch Box: Middle Eastern Carrot Salad

Middle Eastern Carrot Salad, a Clementine, pita and Greek yogurt to round it out.

w/ couscous, carrots and cinnamon:

I have been a terrible bore recently. What's worse, I have been a terribly reclusive bore. I could blame sitting at a desk for eight hours, staring at one of three "work appropriate" web pages, as the culprit, but that wouldn't be fair. The knockdown, drag out truth of the matter is: I am just being lazy. There, I said it. Here I am virtually swimming in a pool of weird human behaviors, and I haven't taken more than a few minutes to observe and evaluate them. I spend two hours a day commuting to work, five days a week and I have posted perhaps two minutes worth of anecdotes and comical character sketches. I mean the things people say, do, EAT!? Today, I saw a man today cradling a bag of Chipotle burritos, near to bursting, with all the careful reverence of a new-born. I mean, burritos are good but... are they that good?

Like students, working professionals consume food constantly as a means of staying awake, wasting time, combating boredom and out of general need for nutrients - these first three being stronger reasons than the last. In many ways I feel more like I have returned to college, rather than abandoned it entirely. I wake up early - I rarely had the luxury of afternoon classes - I guzzle caffeinated beverages to fight spells of mid-afternoon drowsiness and I wage a constant battle against the bulk candy bin at the convenience store downstairs. To me, this all sounds eerily similar to fall semester of my freshman year. But, the most startling bridge between the professional world and the academic bubble is the pinnacle role lunch time plays in the daily grind. It remains the highlight of the day - the golden hour you work towards all morning and then cherish as precious "me" time sandwiched between boredom and drudgery. Other than breakfast - which is largely the only reason I can get out of bed at the crack of dawn - it is the most important meal of the day. Bearing that in mind, a great and wondrous variety of lunchtime options is essential to making your hour of freedom, actually feel like an hour of freedom.

Eating out, whether at a dining hall or the falafel truck outside, chews up your cash flow, and just like in college expenses abound in the working world. I spend about seventy-five dollars weekly in metro passes and parking fees, and about thirty dollars bi-weekly in gas - that's roughly three hundred-fifty dollars a month just to get to and from work. (I rue the day I ever complained about taking the free campus bus service). For me, tacking on another fifty dollars a week in take-out lunches would only exacerbate the already irritating rash of hidden expenses, but options like the traditionally spongy ham and cheese, chips and a soda can be an ordeal rather than an afternoon delight. Luckily, there is a solution: recreate popular take-out meals at home. Think you can't without the price tag? Think again.

At work "Perfect Pita" is a popular, but disappointing option. For about five dollars you can get a giant pita bread filled with iceberg lettuce, grainy tomatoes and, if you're lucky, a spattering of feta cheese - tack on a few extra dollars if you want lamb or chicken. The catch is that you have to pay extra to get minute portions of all the good stuff: hummus, tabbouleh, marinated olives etc. Grab a drink and you've brought your lunch total to a less than satisfactory twelve dollars. A twelve dollar lunch can be a steal at some places, but for a greasy pita it is all but highway robbery - a six pack alone of pita bread only costs $2.99. The good news is that you can make a variety of delicious "Perfect-Pita" style dishes at home for a fraction of the price per lunch. Try this recipe by Cooking Light for "Middle Eastern Carrot Salad", for example. It is chocked full of fresh parsley, sweet carrots and tangy garlic and lemon and Israeli style couscous for only about seven dollars - and serves 4 generous servings.

Notes: This is the second or third time I have made this dish, and I have to say I'm always a little disappointed the couscous is as soft as it is. Personally, I think it is just an overly critical cook being, well, overly critical. The flavor is amazing but it is best served warm. The truth of the matter is, reducing the cooking time by a minute or two and reducing the cooking liquid by a few tablespoons should help keep both (carrots and couscous) from becoming too soft. At least that's what I did. The original recipe calls for a mixture of parsley and cilantro, but since I didn't feel like buying both, using one or the other is just fine. I've also added extra lemon juice and went generously on the garlic. I have even been known to toss in some green onion or fresh spinach to make the couscous heartier. Tossing in some tangy Feta cheese, or even grilled shrimp or chicken, would do the trick too. Need a quick dinner? Serve this salad (ready in under 30 minutes) with "Spice Rubbed Chicken".

If you're planning on eating this dish at lunch, reserve some of the dressing and pour over after reheating. Otherwise, the couscous will soak up all the sauce and become a little more like a jello salad and less like the couscous wonder it really is.

Middle Eastern Carrot Salad
Variation on the recipe by Cooking Light

2 cups carrots, sliced
1 cup Israeli style couscous
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable broth
1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 bunch parsley
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 large clove of garlic
1/3 cup finely diced green onion

1. Combine the first 4 ingredients in a small saucepan.
2. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with the lid off.
3. Prepare the rest of the ingredients.
4. Remove the couscous from the heat, draining any excess liquid. Stir in the remaining ingredients, serving some of the dressing if you plan on eating this for lunch. Serve at room temperature.

For our European Friends:
Cook your couscous according to the package directions (it should give you appropriate measurements and cooking times). I would still reduce the cooking time slightly though just to ensure your couscous doesn't get too soggy. The rest of the recipe can be surmised according to taste - no exact measurements necessary. Just go with the flow.

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