Early in my work-from-home days writing for a daily food news site, I learned the hard way that if you don't carve out time for lunch, you may find yourself at 3 p.m. shoveling in alternating hunks of cheese and bread with one hand while typing a greasy-fingered email with the other, screaming "I can have it all!" to no one.
Hence, I try to take an hour each midday to make and eat lunch.
Some days, the anticipation of homemade lunch energizes me. I'll griddle ham-and-kimchi sandwiches or chop a big pile of spinach for 15-minute palak "paneer" with halloumi while conducting a lively, one-sided conversation with my dog Herbie. When time is shorter, I'll make chilaquiles using leftover takeout tortilla chips, jarred salsa and canned black beans — capped with sliced avocado and a squirt of lime. Or I'll fry a couple of eggs in a big skillet with smashed garlic cloves and whatever vegetable I have on hand, finish said mélange with lemon juice and torn herbs, then heap it on buttered toast.
Do I occasionally become insolent at the very thought of preparing weekday lunch and order falafel sandwiches instead? Yes.
Being a writer, I also occasionally use lunch prep as a procrastination tactic. For instance, cooking and cooling farro at 10 a.m. for that day's hearty lunch salad distracts nicely from an impatient blinking cursor on a blank page. So does pre-soft boiling eggs or par-cooking sweet potatoes for hash.
Lately, I've gotten into the habit of stocking up on frozen, locally caught fish fillets. (In my case, that means whitefish, walleye or trout.) This fast-cooking protein inspires myriad lunch options. Fried fish tacos! Quick-simmered fish curry! Oven-roasted fish with dill and olives!
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My favorite is undoubtedly pan-seared fish sandwiches with herby mayo. It's fast and dead-easy to make but feels fancy because of the fussy compound mayo, ruffly lettuce and pillowy bread — like the sort of lunch you order with a glass of white wine at a posh gastropub downtown. There, the housemade kettle chips would come in a cute wire basket lined with paper, and you'd feel guilty about smearing your white-cloth napkin with grease and mayo.
Of course, this wouldn't happen in my house because we use paper towels as napkins . . .
If you can't find ciabatta rolls, stick with a similarly tender bread, such as bolillo rolls, lightly toasted pullman or sourdough bread slices, so the fish stays intact in the sandwich when you bite down.
Recipe: Fancy Fish Sandwiches with Basil-Caper Mayo
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tsp chopped capers
- 2 tsp minced chives or green onion
- 1/2 tsp lemon zest
- 1 Tbsp chopped basil leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
- Juice of 1 lemon, divided
- Salt, as needed
- All-purpose or rice flour, as needed
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 6-oz. firm-flesh fish fillets, patted dry on both sides (I like whitefish, walleye, halibut and cod.)
- Grapeseed or canola oil, as needed
- 1 tsp butter
- 2 ciabatta rolls, split
- A few leaves butter or bibb lettuce
- Kettle chips, for serving
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, capers, chives, zest, basil, a few grinds of black pepper and a scant 1 tsp lemon juice. Taste the mayo and adjust with salt and pepper as needed. Set aside.
Scatter about 1/3 cup flour over a plate. Season with 1 1/2 tsp salt and the cayenne. Dredge both sides in the seasoned flour, shaking off the excess.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add a couple tablespoons of oil and the butter. Ease the fillets into the skillet, and cook them undisturbed for 2 minutes. Rotate 90 degrees to ensure even browning on the first side, and cook for another minute until golden. Flip the fish, and cook for another 3 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily when you prod it with the spatula's edge. (This might vary based on the thickness of the fish; keep an eye on it.) Remove the fillets, set them on a plate or the cutting board, and spritz generously with lemon juice.
Meanwhile, lightly toast the ciabatta rolls and smear both sides liberally with the compound mayo. Lay a leaf or two of lettuce on the bread, then top with the fish. Close the sandwich, carefully slice it in half and serve immediately with a pile of kettle chips on the side.
A variation: Thin the basil-caper mayo with extra lemon juice. Thinly shave some fennel or cabbage and a little red onion, then toss that in the mayo to make a quick slaw. This tastes delicious piled right on the fish sandwich. Plus, any leftover slaw conveniently doubles as your side salad.
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