Listen, I know, I know: you’re starting to get a handle on working from home – pyjama bottoms below the line of the camera for video conference calls, talking to your house plants in lieu of colleagues, and extravagant breakfasts to use up the time not commuting affords you. But then lunchtime rolls around, and everything falls apart. It’s toast again, isn’t it? Or maybe a cheese sandwich.
I have learnt the hard way that it is all too easy to fall very quickly into a working-lunch-from-home rut: I have been working from home on and off since 2009, and full-time for the last four years. I have endured many, many days and weeks and months of marmite on toast, or cheese on toast or, occasionally, marmite and cheese on toast.
It should be easy: unlike in more normal times, you suddenly have not only your fridge and cupboards at your disposal, but an actual kitchen, with no queue waiting to use the microwave. But all too often, I have found myself gazing at the fridge in a state of hopelessness, and then turning to my bread bin. Maybe I am alone in my chronic lunch lack of inventiveness. But perhaps you too have developed toast fatigue.
I’m being flippant, of course. I’m painfully aware of the impact that this crisis has had on employment, childcare, mental and physical health. But I non-flippantly believe that in this brave new world, we need to take our happinesses where we can find them. And believe me, there are tiny joys to be found in lunch.
I am not here to lunch shame: if what you need to get through your isolated day is a bowl of branflakes, go for it. A sudden craving for rice pudding at 11am is fine. Standing in front of the fridge eating crumbs of cheese as you decide what you want to turn into a meal can even be reframed as an amuse-bouche. But I say the following with love: a Mars bar is not lunch. It might be the sequel to lunch. Some days, it’s even the prequel. But it is not lunch.
I’m not reinventing the wheel here, just – hopefully! – giving you a few ideas to switch up your isolation lunches, and keep them interesting with a mix of recipe links and kitchen tips and tricks.
Make the most of being near your kitchen (and not a Pret) and try something a bit different, but still quick and simple: you could take those items you’d normally stuff into a sandwich and redirect them to other vehicles. Knock up a Staffordshire Oatcake and top it with cheese, onion and bacon. Or try a frittata stuffed with smoked salmon and dill. Or take whatever veg you have lurking and transform them into rosti or fritters, like these courgette fritters from the Spectator’s Seasonal Cook.
The reputation of instant noodles has undergone a serious rehabilitation in recent years: think less Pot Noodle, and more ramen in broth, with more garnishes and additions than you can shake a stick at. Your local chinese supermarket will have a mind-boggling array of noodles, but a nest of dried noodles cooked with a bit of veg stock, miso paste and hot sauce will do a pretty good job. Add rehydrated dried mushrooms, any odds and ends of veg from the fridge, a 6 minute soft-boiled egg, halved, some sliced spring onions, a spoonful of something pickled, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and you suddenly have a very satisfying lunch that will put any meal deal to shame.
You can of course, plan your lunches and get ahead. Roast a chicken at the beginning of the week and enjoy the spoils in a variety of forms. If you have some puff pastry in the freezer, make a pissaladière (the other ingredients are onions, anchovies and black olives, so this is a surprisingly good store-cupboard dish) and rewarm a slab a day with fresh leaves on the side. As much as we’ve all fallen in love with tinned goods recently, if you can get hold of fresh veg, soups are a wonderful make-ahead lunch: try one of our more unusual soups, baked potato soup, curried cauliflower soup, or bacon and pumpkin soup. It’s hard to think of a more pleasing working-from-home lunch than a French onion soup with a cheesy crouton.
While I’m not suggesting you embark on four hour Great British Bake Off technicals for your lunch break sustenance, working from home affords us a little more time for cooking. Don’t let the veg in your fridge go to waste: pop aubergines, courgettes, peppers, carrots, onions, cauliflower, or broccoli, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil and salt, in the oven at 200°C and roast until they are yielding and blackened in places before eating alongside grains, humous, or anything else that takes your fancy. Bake tomatoes super low for an hour or two until they are puckered and broken down and sweet, then toss them through salads or squish them into sandwiches. And I absolutely guarantee you that any baked potato you make from the comfort of your own home will knock the flabby, bloated options served up by most canteens out of the park: rub the potato with oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, cut a cross into the middle of the potato, and cook at 200°C for a full hour.
If you’re freestyling it, there are a host of ways to up your lunch game: to add crunch to your dishes, pan-fry chickpeas with olive oil and a shake of cayenne, smoked paprika and cumin, or repurpose old, stale bread into croutons by drizzling with oil and then frying or baking in a low oven until crisp.
Quick pickles are a welcome addition to almost any dish you can think of, and can be made swiftly before lunch: when you pause to make a morning coffee, finely slice half an onion, or a cucumber, or a handful of radishes. Whisk 100ml of white wine or cider vinegar with a tablespoon of sugar and two teaspoons of salt until dissolved, add the veg, and return to them at lunch time, for a speedy, tart, bright addition to your lunch.
Or take this opportunity of enforced home time to expand your salad dressing repertoire. A salad dressing needn’t be a simple olive oil-vinegar vinaigrette: try grating half a clove of raw garlic into buttermilk, or just seasoning natural yoghurt with a little salt and folding some olive oil through it; anchovies blitzed with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley is my favourite, and will keep for a week in your fridge. My Niçoise salad recipe is a filling option if you’re in need of ideas.
And finally a motto for life: when in doubt, put an egg on it. Ideally a fried one, with crispy, lacey edges.