Summertime in the South…or What’s In The Box?

Travel food and box lunches work within a delicate boundary between tasty, safe and easy to eat. A road trip with soggy sandwiches? Fast food? Health safety fried foods and meats? Gummy starches and carbohydrates? There is a way to have the best of all worlds with proper preparation of key ingredients, observation of temperature and time sensitive holding. I am concentrating on starches and side dishes.
Always look to the hottest regions of the world when putting together a box lunch. Humidity has a huge effect on picnic foods. Keep in mind basic terms for your meal: Does it need to be kept cold? Will it hold well? Can it be assembled when you are ready to eat or will it be a completed dish? Can it withstand heat for long? Will you eat it with your fingers or are dishes, chopsticks, knives or forks necessary?
We are making barley with lemon, sumac and cilantro; cold sesame lo mein pasta; and Japanese sweet potato salad with spiced ham and roasted sweet peppers. These are easy to make, filling, full of good vitamins and amino acid. Barley is much more than a beer ingredient, soup or breakfast. Only the sweet potato salad is gluten free this month.
A good substitute for hulled and/or pearl barley is spelt. Though spelt does have gluten it has been found to be tolerated. I like using spelt, when I can find it. Spelt looks like giant barley and is based in Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions. They are both high in good cholesterol, magnesium and phosphorus. It is a popular grain today but is still scarce in some areas, hence, barley, pearl barley in particular, is our grain for this rich salad. Hulled barley is more nutritious than pearled or polished. Barley, malt and wheat gluten are the primary grains responsible for gluten intolerance.
It’s funny how pulses and grams that became animal and bird food in the last century have now made it back to the daily table as delicious and enriching starches. This change is a great thing. Imagine a life without quinoa, amaranth, barley, lentils, millet and spelt? Some may still live without these amazing grains. The loss was all mine, and many others, up until the mid 1990s when quinoa and amaranth, the super grains of the Americas came to prominence. They are perfect for our beautiful South.
Lo mein/Canton noodles are wheat, water, salt and egg. They are available flat for sauté/stir fry and round for soups. Shanghai noodles are the larger, round style, which is what many American diners are used to in American-Chinese restaurants as lo mein. You can also use ramen pasta for cold dishes. This is not the instant, which is a college staple and easy lunch dish. The Japanese ramen interpretation of lo mein that has less fat content than Chinese lo mein. My friend Karen at Fooks Grocery suggested using ramen and it was a great addition alternate recipes for cold sesame noodles. You can use dry or fresh for the cold pasta dish, Sesame noodles. This particular dish shows up as a late night take out dish in movies all the time. Sesame noodles can be addictive. If you are using up pasta in your pantry then spaghetti and linguine are both good substitutes for Canton/lo mein pasta.
Sweet potatoes are grown all over Asia. There are around 70 varieties from purple to tan. The one we are using, the Japanese sweet potato, has a thin skin and is pale yellow, not deep orange which is the more common variety here in the South and in China. It is less sweet but as high in nutrients as any other sweet potato variety. They hold well for tempura frying, chips and as a diced salad style. Japanese sweet potato starch is used along with lime starch in making gluten free shiriitake noodles. Because of their versatility and health benefits sweet potatoes are amazing in any and all preparations, and yes, it is also used for making spirits (booze!) in Africa and Asia. Imagine a friend saying they had a sweet potato hang over.
Barley With Sumac and Cilantro
There are 250 kinds of sumac. The one we use for cooking is an Arabic sumac that is red and has a lemony flavor perfect for fish, lamb and grain dishes. It is not “poison” sumac we find here in our easements and woods. You can find sumac in the Athens area at Taj Mahal on Baxter Street. There are limitless ingredients of the subcontinent here so ask questions in the store. I go there specifically to buy sumac, starches, spices, fenugreek leaves and curry leaves. Our barley today is pearl barley. Puffed and ready to eat hot in 20 minutes. For our purpose you will cook the barley the night before and then add seasonings the next day. I am using the puffed so that it is similar in appearance to spelt/farro.
You can add things like chevre and ground lamb/turkey in grape leaves, various sliced olives, almonds, kim chee, seaweed salad and just about anything that complements grains.
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups water
½ teaspoon kosher sea salt (sea salt has no ammonia or bleach)
Bring salted water to a boil. Stir in barley. Reduce heat to simmer. Stir. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
24 leaves sliced fresh cilantro
1 ounce roasted red peppers, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4th teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sumac
Stir ingredients and cover. Let rest 10 minutes. Chill. Garnish with chopped almonds.

Sesame Noodles
You can use fresh or dried Chinese noodles for this dish. Always check the labels on Asian noodles/pasta and you will notice at least one key ingredient: wheat flour, rice flour, a bean flour or potato and tapioca flour. Western pasta is basically wheat flour. The different flours used in Asian pastas is what gives each one a distinctive flavor and texture.
Making cold or hot sesame noodles is easier and faster than most any other pasta. It took me 20 minutes to prepare this recipe. I cooked ramen and lo mein pastas to compare and found the lo mein to be better for the cold and ramen for hot/warm. Notice that the final sauce is not thick. If you make it too thick then it will become gummy upon refrigeration. Combine pasta and sauce while warm.
If you have trouble with peanut butter then use almond or cashew butter.
8 ounces lo mein
2 quarts boiling water
1/3 teaspoon kosher sea salt
Cook noodles. Drain and rinse under cold water.
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped into a paste
1/3rd teaspoon Indian red chili
½ teaspoon sambal oelek (Vietnamese Chili Garlic paste)
2 tablespoons brown sugar or date palm molasses
½ cup creamy peanut butter
3 tablespoons peanut oil or coconut oil or corn oil
1/3 cup vegetable stock
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted white sesame seeds
3 stalks green onion, chopped
Cook brown sugar and peanut butter in the oil until it is warm throughout, add garlic, ginger and chili. Heat on medium for five minutes. Stir so that it does not stick to bottom of the pan. Stir in vegetable stock, soy and vinegar and continue to cook and stir for ten minutes on medium low.
Add noodles to sauce and cook for two minutes so that the noodles are coated and there is a light sauce. Add toasted sesame seeds.
Other garnishes can be sliced pickle, cabbage, cucumbers, cilantro, green onions, chopped nuts or zucchini cut into thin strips to resemble pasta using a microplane vegetable slicer.
Sweet Potato Salad
Potato salads have been lunchbox, picnic and travel favorites for generations and there is no reason to stop now. What we can do is expand on the many kinds of potato. We are using Japanese yam for this particular recipe but sweet potatoes are just as perfect. Be careful on how long you cook the diced potatoes as they go from gently firm to very soft in seconds. Frequently check for firmness as they boil.
The addition of honey and molasses was a last minute idea when I was cooking a test batch. You can experiment with various honeys from local uncooked which is the healthiest to any number of honey from around the country and globe. The same holds for different kinds of molasses when you start comparing grape, date, sorghum and cane. Unsulphured Blackstrap molasses is truly healthy, in fact it is the only processed sugar that is considered to posses healthy nutrients iron, calcium, magnesium, trace minerals, B and E vitamins. It has more calcium than milk.
2 tablespoons corn oil, coconut oil or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
10 ounces Sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
8 ounces Ham, cut into small cubes
1/4th ounce dried mango, minced
1/3 cup yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, small dice
2 Parsnips, small dice
1/3 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine
1/3rd cup Cashews
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
1 tablespoon Roasted Italian herbs: thyme, oregano, basil
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons European butter like Kerrygold Irish, Plugra or local dairy
5 ounces Irish gouda or young swiss cheese, small cubes
Saute potato, ham, mango, onion, celery and parsnips in oil on medium high heat for five minutes. Add chicken stock and cooking wine, cook until liquid dissolves. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the cheese, and cook on medium low for five minutes. Remove from heat and add cheese. Refrigerate. You can also add any other fresh or dried fruits such as cherries, pineapple, pears, apples or grapes.
Of course any bread, cheese and cured meat is excellent for picnic, lunchbox or travel. Whether you are at home, school, on the back porch, in the mountains, by a stream or on the sea there is always a place for the new and unique plays on old standards for the picnic basket. The most important thing is to look to those close or far away and offer your peace and friendship. Any good Food can be sustainable, local and universal.

Dried flowers, a dusty letter,
Japanese figurines, yellow light
on the brick mantel shines,
wipe your eyes, look again,
and still it shines a cracked
and dingy pastel,
the morning itself seems like a postcard,
a loved memento of the life you’ve had.
But waking always brings this pause,
this gaze into the past…
You wish it was easier
to shake away the dreams,
just set them on the shelf
beside the light,
turn around and go your way,
To find something that will last.
And today these wishes
Do come true,
Today I woke and saw you.

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