The Vegan Lunchbox (with Cookies!)

(originally published September 2002, in Co-options, the newsletter of Sevanada Natural Foods Cooperative in Atlanta, GA. http://www.sevananda.coop)

Do you remember your first lunchbox? I do, even though it’s been 35 years since I used it. It was metal, and had a game on the back (“Campus Queen”), with magnetic game pieces and a spinner attached to the box. I loved it and its matching Thermos, and loved taking my lunch to kindergarten in it.

By the time you read this, children in Atlanta will have been back in school for nearly a month. If you have school-age children, they’re probably about ready for something different in their brown-bags or lunchboxes. Even if you don’t have kids, you might like to pack lunch for yourself or a loved one. My husband takes his lunch to work every day. Packing your own lunch not only makes it easier to control your diet, it will help you save money. Besides, a lunch packed with love always tastes better than fast food, and is a lot healthier for you and the planet.

The “main dish” in brown-bag lunches is often a sandwich. Besides that old stand-by, peanut butter (with or without jam or banana), you can make sandwiches with hummus or other flavored bean patés, or tofu- and tempeh-based spreads. These all taste great with a handful of salad greens and tomato and cucumber slices.

Other yummy lunchbox options are leftovers. When making stews or casseroles like lasagna, I always make extra so that my husband can take the leftovers with him the next day. Many foods actually taste better after they sit overnight in the refrigerator, giving the flavors a chance to marry. If your school or office provides a microwave, you can heat up the leftovers, but many casseroles taste great at room temperature. Of course, you don’t want to leave food out of refrigeration for too long, but most vegan foods, if handled properly, will be fine after a morning left in a locker. A wide-mouthed thermos makes it easy to send along hot soup, stew, or pasta when the weather gets cold.

Fresh, non-crushable fruit like apples and oranges are lunchbox favorites, but while they’re in season, you might like to send along berries, plums, cut-up melon, or other soft fruits in a recycled margarine or soy yogurt tub. Carrot sticks and celery sticks are easy and popular, but more complex salads can also be packed in a reused plastic container, which will also double as a bowl. To keep your greens crisp, pack dressing in a tiny yogurt tub or baby Tupperware container to be added just before eating.
A bagel or muffin is another nice lunch addition, especially for older teens who are growing quickly and are ALWAYS hungry.

Desserts are not a necessity of life, but they are a nice treat sometimes. I remember the thrill of discovering an unexpected homemade cookie or cupcake in my lunchbox. Many of my classmates just got those plastic-wrapped goodies – you know, the ones with the little frosting loops across the top. They were so jealous of my mom-baked sweets that they offered to trade me two of theirs for one of mine. I took one or two of them up on these offers until I figured out how much better my mom’s cupcakes and cookies were!

Some notes on making cookies: If you like chewy cookies, select a recipe that has one part fat (margarine or oil), two parts sugar (Sucanat, dehydrated cane juice, maple syrup, etc.), and two parts flour. The chocolate chip cookies below have approximately this ratio. The oatmeal cookies below are less sweet and drier, although the chocolate variation is wonderfully chewy. If you want the cinnamon-oatmeal-raisin version to be as sweet and chewy as a traditional oatmeal cookie, add 3/4 cup of unbleached sugar.

If you want to “veganize” a cookie recipe that only calls for one egg, you can usually just leave it out, replacing it with a tablespoon or two of water. If your recipe calls for 2 or 3 eggs, use Ener-G Egg Replacer powder, as directed on the package. Don’t try to veganize cookie recipes that call for a large number of egg whites (meringues, etc.). The eggs in these recipes are integral to their success and I’ve never been able to find a suitable replacement.

I always bake cookies on parchment-covered pans. They are much less likely to stick, and the pans are easier to clean when baking on parchment. A lot of people swear by Silpat brand silicon-coated pan liners, which are reusable, but I’ve never tried them. Shiny aluminum pans are best – dark ones often cause the cookies to be over-browned on bottom before the tops are properly set. If you are baking a lot of cookies and need to reuse a pan, let it cool before putting more cookie dough on it.

To measure out perfectly even cookies, use a portioning scoop. These look like ice-cream scoops, and are available in kitchen supply stores. If you go to a commercial kitchen wholesaler, you will find an amazing array of sizes and they’re cheaper than the stores at the mall. You can get professional pans there as well, and the prices are very reasonable ($3 –$4 each for half-sized bun pans – the size that will fit in most home ovens). While you’re there, pick up an 8-inch chef’s knife – a kitchen must!

Back to that Campus Queen lunchbox – My baby sister threw my game pieces out the window of our moving car and my mother refused to go back and brave traffic to get them. Bitter? Not me!! But, 35 years later I still remember that incident, and the boy who traded me two Hostess cupcakes for my one homemade one. My point is that lunchboxes and the food that goes in them can evoke strong feelings and create strong memories. Why not spend that extra few minutes to make some happy lunchbox memories? Attached are one recipe for an easy lunch spread and three classic lunchbox or after-school cookies – all vegan, all easy, all delicious!

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Curried Tofu Spread

Recipe By: Cookin’ Healthy With One Foot Out the Door, 1994 (adapted)
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 0:15

This is super quick and easy, with a wonderful balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors.

1 12.3 oz package silken) tofu (Mori-Nu brand, soft or firm)
1/3 cup peanut butter
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 stalks celery chopped, optional
3 tablespoons peanuts chopped, optional
cayenne to taste, optional

Use a potato masher or a fork to combine the first six ingredients, adding the peanuts last. Use as a spread between slices of whole wheat bread, on pita bread, or use as a dip for raw vegetables.
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Chocolate Chip Cookies (makes about 4 dozen small cookies)
Recipe By: Lisa Bennett, adapted from Joy of Cooking

1/2 cup margarine (non-dairy)
1/2 cup Sucanat
1/2 cup unbleached sugar (raw or turbinado)
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or flavor
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup pecan or walnut pieces
1/2 cup non-dairy semisweet chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 350 F.

Cream together margarine and sugars until creamy. Beat in water and vanilla. Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Stir in nuts and chips. Drop batter from a teaspoon or an extra-small (#40) scoop onto a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet, leaving 2 inches between cookies. Bake for about 10 minutes or until beginning to set around edges. Cookies will get firmer after they cool, but should remain chewy.

Variation: Add 1/2 cup shredded toasted coconut instead of nuts. I use the grated organic dried coconut available in the dairy cooler at Sevananda, then toast it in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes or until light gold.

Vegan Blondies – Bake batter above in 9 X 13 inch greased pan. Check after 20 minutes. Cookies are done when center begins to show cracks. Don’t overbake! Cool, then cut into bars.

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Oatmeal Cookies with Variations (makes 4 dozen small cookies)
Recipe By: Mollie Katzen, Still Life with Menu (1994),

3/4 cup non-dairy margarine (1 1/2 sticks)
3/4 cup brown sugar (packed)
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups rolled oats
5 tablespoons water or orange juice up to 6 tablespoons
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup raisins (packed)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Oatmeal cookies are a perennial favorite. The basic recipe is open to many
suggestions and variations, so feel free to be creative. Meanwhile, here
are two of my own favorite versions:

Cinnamon-Raisin-Walnut Oatmeal Cookies

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease or parchment-line a cookie sheet.

2. Cream together margarine and Sucanat with an electric mixer at high speed. (Lisa’s note: Add 3/4 cup unbleached sugar for sweeter, chewier cookies)

3. Beat in the water; stir in the vanilla.

4. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.

5. If you are using thick-cut rolled oats (the kind that is sold in bulk
at natural food stores), grind the oats slightly in a blender or food
processor, using a few quick spurts. If you are using a more refined
product, like Quaker Oats, this step is unnecessary.

6. Stir flour mixture into the margarine mixture, and add all remaining
ingredients. Mix until everything is well combined.

7. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a lightly greased cookie sheet, and
flatten each cookie slightly with the back of the spoon.

8. Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the sheet while still hot, and cool
on a rack.

Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Follow the above recipe with these changes:

1. Substitute 5 to 6 tablespoons black coffee for the water or orange juice.

2. Omit cinnamon, raisins, walnuts.

3. Add 1 cup ground chocolate chips (ground to a coarse meal in a blender or food processor, using quick spurts) and 1 cup whole chocolate chips. Stir these in at the end.

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Peanut Butter Cookies (makes about 4 dozen small cookies)
Recipe by Lisa T. Bennett, adapted from Joy of Cooking

These are very rich and peanut-buttery.

1/2 cup unbleached (raw, turbinado) sugar
1/2 cup Sucanat
1/2 cup natural peanut butter
1/4 cup shortening (Spectrum Organic Brand)*
1/4 cup margarine, softened
2 tablespoons water (or maple syrup**)
1 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon Baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream together sugars, peanut butter, shortening, margarine and water in mixing bowl.

Stir in remaining ingredients. Shape into 1-1/4″ balls. Place 3″ apart on ungreased (or parchment covered) cookie sheet. Flatten in crisscross pattern with floured fork.

Bake 9-10 minutes or until light brown. Cool 2 minutes; remove from cookie sheet.

*or 1/2 cup of margarine total
**maple syrup makes the cookies chewier, but is optional.

Variation: Peanut Butter and Jam Thumbprints: Instead of criss-crossing these with a fork, press a thumb into each cookie to make a dent. Bake the cookies, and while they are still very warm, carefully add 1/2 teaspoon fruit-sweetened jam into the hollow of each cookie.