A little prep work can mean hassle-free meals

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune
Egg salad lettuce cups are a simple lunch option when you’re working from home.

My collection of brown paper sacks, insulated lunch bags and reusable salad containers fill a drawer in my kitchen. This fall, few of us will tote a sack lunch to an actual school or office building. Instead, we’ll open the fridge a dozen times a day in search of satisfaction and distraction.

Planning proves the key to nourishing lunches squeezed into busy schedules. Mostly, I cook ahead adding extra chicken breasts, salmon fillets, pork tenderloin or sliced eggplants to Sunday dinner plans. Likewise, I’ll cook an extra sweet potato or head of broccoli to have cooked vegetables at the ready.

To ease salad preparation, I rinse and spin a variety of lettuces, then store the greens in a covered container lined with a piece of paper towel for a mix that will last all week.

Over the weekend, I spend time hard-cooking a dozen eggs for easy, high-protein snacking or a simple sandwich with a slice of tomato or pickle.

These days, our pantry shelves hold plenty of nut butters, jams, tinned fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines, along with interesting mustards and mayonnaise. I rely on these staples when fresh supplies run low.

I stock interesting breads in the freezer — including pitas from the local bakery, whole wheat flour tortillas, whole grain buns and take-and-bake ciabatta and pretzel rolls.

Turmeric Grilled Salmon With Ginger Yogurt Sauce and Grilled Pita

Prep: 20 minutes

Marinate: 1 hour or more

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

2 salmon fillets, about 1 pound each and 11/4 inches thick

1/2 small red or white onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon each: salt, turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or red pepper hot sauce

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon milk, half-and-half or whipping cream

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger or refrigerated ginger puree

2 or 3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion tops or chives

6 pita breads (with or without pockets) or 6 thick slices country-style bread

1 large tomato, halved, seeded, chopped

1 avocado, halved, pitted, diced

Chopped fresh mint or basil or a combination

Lime wedges

Pat fish dry with paper towels; place it in a baking dish. Use a four-sided grater to finely grate the onion into a mixing bowl. Stir in oil, garlic, paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the turmeric, cumin and cayenne. Mix well. Transfer 1 tablespoon of the mixture to a separate bowl; set aside. Smear remaining mixture over all sides of the fish. Let sit at room temperature while the grill heats (maximum 30 minutes) or in the refrigerator for several hours.

Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium hot. When the grill is hot, heat the grill grate. Alternatively, heat a broiler to high and position the rack so the food will cook 6 inches from heat source.

While the grill heats, make the sauce by stirring the yogurt, milk, ginger, remaining 1 / 2 teaspoon salt and turmeric into the reserved 1 tablespoon of marinade. Stir in the green onions or chives. Makes: 2/3 cup

Set the fish on the grill directly over the heat source, skin side up. (Or on the broiler pan.) Grill, covered, without turning the fish until it releases from the grill grates, about 4 minutes. Use a thin spatula to gently flip the fish fillets. Grill, covered, until flesh almost flakes, 3 to 5 minutes more. Transfer to a platter.

Set the flatbreads over the grill grates (or in a toaster); cook turning, until warmed and a bit crisped, about 2 minutes.

Top fish with a generous spoonful of the yogurt sauce, tomatoes and avocado. Serve garnished with herbs and lime wedges for squeezing over everything. Pass the grilled bread. For sandwiches the next day, simply break the fish into large chunks and serve tucked inside the pita or piled on top to fold in half to eat.

Per serving: 532 calories, 22 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 97 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 44 g protein, 813 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

Nutty Butter and Fruit Panini

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 2 sandwiches

To transport these sandwiches, skip the cooking. Instead, assemble them on frozen bread slices and wrap in plastic. Pack into an insulated bag with an ice pack. The cold sandwiches will stay fresh for a half day or more.

4 to 6 tablespoons chunky peanut butter, cashew butter or almond butter

4 slices marble rye bread or whole grain bread

1/3 cup fresh blueberries or very thinly sliced fresh peaches or strawberries

2 to 3 tablespoons blueberry, peach or strawberry jam or preserves

Softened butter

Heat a panini press or the flat sides of a waffle iron. Alternatively, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat.

While the pan heats, spread the nut butter evenly over 2 slices of the bread. Press half of the fruit into the nut butter on each slice of bread. Spread the jam evenly over the other 2 bread slices. Sandwich the breads together.

Spread the butter over the outside of the sandwiches. Place on the hot panini press (or into the cast-iron skillet). Close the panini press (or use a heavy lid or smaller skillet to stack onto the sandwiches in the cast-iron). Cook until crisped and golden, about 4 minutes. (You’ll need to flip the sandwiches if cooking them in the skillet).

Transfer to a cutting board. Cut in half and serve hot.

Per serving: 418 calories, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 54 g carbohydrates, 20 g sugar, 13 g protein, 542 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

Egg Salad With Peppers and Herbs

Prep: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Serve this simple egg salad on lettuce leaves or between slices of toasted rye or wheat bread with slices of fresh tomato.

1 or 2 small inner ribs celery

1/2 yellow, orange or red bell pepper, seeded

2 skinny green onions, very thinly sliced OR 3 tablespoons minced and rinsed sweet onion

1/2 jalapeno pepper, very finely chopped, optional

1/4 to 1/3 cup organic mayonnaise

2 or 3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as a combination of dill and cilantro

1/4 teaspoon celery salt (or regular salt)

6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled

Flavor additions: Crumbled cooked bacon, diced sun-dried tomatoes, diced dill pickle

Crunch additions: sunflower seeds, crushed potato chips

Very finely dice the celery and bell pepper; tumble into a bowl. Stir in onions, jalapeno, mayonnaise to taste, herbs and salt. Mix well.

Set the peeled eggs on a cutting board. Cut each egg lengthwise into quarters, then thinly slice the egg quarters. Add eggs to the bowl; mix gently to moisten them with the mayonnaise.

Serve topped with any of the flavor and crunch additions you fancy.

Per serving: 219 calories, 18 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 286 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 10 g protein, 269 mg sodium, 1 g fiber