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If you spend any time on Pinterest, you’ve undoubtedly seen the cutesy lunch boxes where people turn food into works of art, called ‘bento.’ Bento is Japanese for ‘lunch box.’ I’ve watched them for a while, but when we decided to put the kids in school, I started a Pinterest board with this most creative ideas in order to inspire me.
There are many tools you can use to decorate bento-style lunches. Unfortunately, those tools cost money and that’s in short supply right now while we work on two other projects (displaying at the regional state fair for It Works! and replacing all of the plumbing in our house, ripping out multiple walls and ceilings), so I decided I would just do what I could with what I have. For now, that means Lunchbots, one Monbento and kitchen shears, all previously purchased.
A bento can be done in any container, it doesn’t have to be a short, rectangular, multi-tiered lunch box. Typical bento boxes are short, I believe, in an effort to allow you to pack the box tightly and to the top so that the contents don’t shift during transport. But if you’re creative, you can use what you have and still make it work.
Saturday night, I decided I would construct a bento for each child to eat for Sunday’s lunch, to see if they would eat it and if they liked it. I decided to make rice balls, called onigiri in Japan, for the first go-around, as they like all of the ingredients involved. Rice balls can be made with just plain rice or you can include a filling. I decided to fill Trey’s with tuna and mayo, and Belle’s with leftover, chopped roast beef and mayo.
I used a short grain brown rice, as that was what I had on hand. It is necessary to use a short-grain or sushi rice so that they will stick together. If you use a long-grain rice, your rice balls will fall apart because those types of rices are fluffy and not sticky once cooked. So white or brown, sushi, sticky or short-grained rices are what you need.
I made the rice balls and tucked them into their Monbneto lunch box with a tiny little condiment cup of tamari, with little pieces of veggies tucked around- broccoli, carrot, cucumber and cherry tomatoes. I used a silicone muffin cup to hold the grapes and blueberries. I decorated one of the rice balls with a little smile made out of Seasnax.
The results were wonderful. Both kids loved the rice balls and ate everything in their containers. I made more for the next day, and also included some egg salad in a second container. One Monbento is meant to hold one meal for one person. Because the kids are sharing the one container, I have to add a second container to include enough fat, protein and veggies to make a decent-sized meal that will hold them until school is over. I will get a second Monbento as soon as I can swing it. With us having to literally replace all of the plumbing lines in the house and ripping out and repairing multiple walls and ceilings, that might be a while.
To mold the rice balls, I used a Lunchbots condiment cup. It was the perfect size to make a two-bite rice ball for an adult, or 3-4 bites for a child.
Rice Balls (Onigiri)
1 cup water or chicken stock
Salt to taste
1/2 cup plain, white or brown, short-grain, sticky or sushi rice
1/4 cup finely diced meat- tuna, beef or chicken
1 Tbs mayonnaise
Salt, pepper, spices to match
1 package Seasnax or one sheet of nori, optional
In a saucepan, combine the water and the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, stir the rice in, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat but do not uncover the rice, and allow to rest for ten minutes. Then turn the rice out into a pan and spread it out to allow it to cool.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the diced meat and mayonnaise. Salt and spice the meat mixture to taste so that it is flavorful. Set it side.
Once the rice is just cool enough to handle, wet your mold, pour out the excess water and gently pack it half-full with rice, creating an indention in the center of the mold.. You want to pack the rice tight enough that the grains stick to each other, but not so tight that it becomes gummy and one solid mass. Lightly pressing is best. Place a small amount of the filling on top of the packed rice in the hollow, then fill the rest of the mold with rice and gently press down. Turn the mold over and gently tap and shake until the rice ball slides out of the mold. You will want to work quickly, as once the rice cools, it will no longer stick together.
You don’t have to wrap the rice balls with seaweed, but my kids enjoyed them since they like Seasnax. Cut the Seasnax or nori into strips wide and long enough to wrap around the rice ball’s edges. Gently wrap the seaweed around the rice ball. If it does not adhere easily, wet the fingers of one hand and gently pat the outside of the roll, then use your dry hand to position the seaweed. Do not handle the seaweed with damp hands, as it will stick to you.
Refrigerate until eating.