Meal prepping lunches for work or back-to-school is an efficient, cost-effective meal solution for the whole family—but it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of same old, same old. To keep things from getting stale, elevate your packed lunches this fall with one or more homemade condiments that pack a lot of flavor for little effort. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.
Quick pickled onions
I know I’m not alone when I say my order at Lloyd comes with a standard, “add pickled reds, please.” According to the quick service enterprise’s cofounder and chef, Chris Dorsaneo, the Taco Factories, trucks and catering go through 100 pounds of pickled red onions a day—and for good reason. There may not be a more pleasing complement to its rich, savory, sometimes spicy cuisine than the sweet and piquant tang of crisp, quick-pickled onions. I also don’t think there is any reason to limit enjoyment of them to tacos or meals out.
Pickled onions come together with few ingredients, require minimal effort and enhance many dishes you might pack in your or your child’s lunch. Dorsaneo says pickling them is as easy as following a standard formula of one-part water to two parts vinegar, plus one tablespoon each of sugar and salt for every cup of vinegar you use.
Within the confines of that formula, there’s even room to get creative. Try different vinegars or a combination of them—white or red wine, apple cider, rice wine, black or champagne—or add herbs and spices to your brine. Dill, clove, coriander, mustard seed, juniper, turmeric, allspice and fennel seed are just a few Dorsaneo recommends.
You can even experiment with the variety of onion or other vegetables you want to pickle, but know that only red onions will turn vibrant magenta after a stint in brine. Use them to brighten deli sandwiches, avocado toast, cold grain or pasta dishes, or mayonnaise-based egg, chicken, potato, tuna or macaroni salads.
Cured egg yolks
To add umami and color to an otherwise drab school or work lunch, consider prepping a batch of cured egg yolks, which can be grated over salads, vegetables, grain bowls and pasta to achieve a salty-savory effect not unlike Parmesan cheese. For Chef Jesse Ross of The Dapper Goose in Black Rock, the dried, preserved yolks are practically a menu staple, gracing everything from grilled asparagus to vinegar-braised fingerling potatoes.
While it might seem like cured egg yolks are an impractical ingredient to make at home, they’re actually easy—not to mention a frugal means of using up any yolks leftover from your latest meringue or angel food cake. All you need is a curing agent to draw out the moisture (Ross recommends equal parts salt and sugar), a glass baking dish, intact yolks separated from their whites and time.
Ross lets his yolks cure in the salt-sugar mixture for three to four weeks until they’re hard enough to grate, but some online recipes call for as little as four days and a turn in a low oven for accelerated drying power. Whatever method you choose will yield flavor-packed yolks that will keep in the fridge for months.
Use-up-the-fruit refrigerator jam
Last summer, in a fit of reason-suspending u-pick joy, my boyfriend and I brought home 17 pounds of cherries from Bitter Singer Orchards in Appleton, New York. Back at home, we couldn’t eat them fast enough to stay ahead of spoilage, so we turned them into a batch of bright, lightly sweet, naturally thickened jam. The project afforded us jars upon jars full of seasonal local eating well into winter. At Thanksgiving, we even turned some into pie filling for a showstopping throwback-to-summer dessert.
The moral of the story is: Making jam at home is a fun, gratifying way to use up your own glut of fruit. Sure, jam is easy to buy at the store, but making it in the confines of your own kitchen gives you liberty to control the quality of the fruit and amount of sugar you use in your recipe. It’s also a great excuse to buy in bulk from Western New York farmers, who rely on our patronage to keep alive their time-honored agricultural traditions—not to mention support their families.
You can make refrigerator jam without any special ingredients or canning equipment. Fruit, sugar, lemon juice, a pinch of salt, a saucepan and a stovetop are the only requirements for producing a loose jam that can be slathered on bread with cheese and salami to make a sweet-and-salty sandwich or paired with any variety of nut butter for an upgraded PB and J.
Produced in this manner, the jam will only stay good in the refrigerator for a week or two, depending how much sugar you use and how much water you cook out of the fruit. For longer-lasting jam, be sure to break out the sterilized Ball jars and follow the manufacturer’s directions for preserving. And if thick is the jam consistency you’re after, be sure to use added pectin in your recipe.
Blue cheese dressing
In Western New York, blue cheese dressing is sacrosanct. But honestly, we can do better than the glop in the glass jars. The process of making it at home isn’t much more complicated than buying it prepared, and the upsides are numerous: You control the freshness and quality of the dressing’s components. (Opt for the best cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream and buttermilk you are willing to pay for.)
You control the chunkiness and pungency. (Ask the cheese monger at your favorite grocery store to recommend a mild or funky blue cheese, depending on your preference.
And don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before you buy.) And you can riff on the general formula, widely available online, with add-ins like fresh herbs or a spicy element like cayenne. All it takes is some eyeballing of ingredients and light mixing to arrive at a dressing perfect for green salads and crudités.
Better left to the professionals
You could make your own kimchi and sauerkraut, which bring addictive, bold, sour flavors and probiotic health benefits to your family’s packed lunches. But why go through the effort of manipulating bacterial activity when Buffalo is home to Barrel & Brine—a small, local, family owned company that specializes in live culture fermented products.
Barrel & Brine’s kimchi is made from Napa cabbage, carrots, Korean chili pepper and anchovy for and extra hit of umami while its sauerkraut comes in classic and beet-and-caraway flavors. Find them in cold storage at Wegmans, Whole Foods, Lexington Co-op, Farmers & Artisans, the East Aurora Co-op or at Barrel & Brine’s new café and kombucha bar on Chandler Street in Black Rock.
Story topics: Food + Drink