Turn dinner leftovers into school lunches

It’s time to talk about school lunch again, as if it’s a completely new concept. That comes off as a bit outdated to those of us who work most of the summer and send our kids to day camp, brown paper bag in hand.

It’s time to talk about school lunch again, as if it’s a completely new concept. That comes off as a bit outdated to those of us who work most of the summer and send our kids to day camp, brown paper bag in hand. But packing lunch is a challenge no matter what time of year, and it never hurts to revisit that eternal question of what to put into it.

I certainly am open to new ideas, because my kids are happy to eat almost the same meal every day, and one that’s not terribly inspiring or nutritious (the main course tends to be noodles tossed with butter and Parmesan in a Thermos).

Feeling the need for outside inspiration, I looked at some recent books by authors who know what they’re talking about. I first went to Williams-Sonoma Family Meals, by Maria Helm Sinskey (Oxmoor House, 2009).

The mother of two works full-time as culinary director at her family’s Napa winery, Robert Sinskey Vineyards. She’s also studying to be a Master of Wine and still has time to write cookbooks.

Her book doesn’t include lunch recipes per se, but I was drawn to her herb-roasted chicken, figuring I could cook it on the weekend and pack a leftover wing or drumstick in the kids’ lunches for protein. Everyone has their own way to roast a chicken, and though the variations between recipes tend to be slight, her chicken was wonderful.

Sinskey combines herbs with olive oil and pepper and slathers the mixture under the skin, then oils the bird again and salts it well. She roasts it at high heat (425 degrees) throughout, which results in a crispy bird with juicy meat.

Next I looked to Boston writer Emily Franklin. Because she is a prolific novelist, was briefly a chef and is now the mother of four young children, I figured her food memoir Too Many Cooks (Voice, 2009) would offer a few tricks.

I’ve tried only one recipe so far, but I was drawn to her overall unapologetic attitude to use certain ingredients only if you have them, to marinate the meat for just 10 minutes (or not at all).

Her recipe for Crunchy Sesame Tofu pairs a peanut-like dipping sauce with crispy fried tofu. She also recommends using the sauce on noodles, which we did. Her call for soy nut butter instead of peanut butter is an inspired choice for school lunches, as many campuses don’t allow peanuts because of students’ allergies. Made of toasted soy “nuts,” the soy butter we found tasted surprisingly like Jif and resulted in a creamy, nutty sauce. The noodles are good chilled, and you can keep them cold in a lunch box with an ice pack.

Both of these recipes are adult-friendly, as is the Tuna and Corn Stuffed Manicotti from Rachael Daylong, a San Francisco Chronicle intern from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. It’s not intended for school lunches, but it seems to fit in with the back-to-school spirit, with flavors reminiscent of tuna casserole.

Daylong stuffs cannelloni with a mixture of canned tuna with kernels of fresh corn that add a sweet bite, and covers it with an easy sauce made of half-and-half and Parmesan cheese. It’s got the comfort factor of tuna casserole with an updated flavor profile.

Make any of these recipes for dinner with enough extra for a couple of lunches (or leftover dinners) for the rest of the week, and going back to school won’t seem quite so stressful.

Tuna and Corn Stuffed Manicotti

Dinner in 1 hour

Serves 4 to 8

This is a modern take on the old standby, tuna casserole. It can be prepared, up until baking, up to 2 days in advance.

The pasta:

1 (8-ounce) package manicotti, about 8 noodles

2 (6-ounce) cans quality tuna packed in olive oil, drained

Kernels from 2 ears corn

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

The sauce:

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 cups half-and-half

2 cups grated Parmesan cheese plus 1/2 cup to top

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

For the pasta: In a large stockpot, boil pasta for 4 to 5 minutes, or until almost done; it should still have a hard center. Remove from the pan and rinse with cold water until cool enough to handle.

While the pasta is cooking, in a medium bowl combine corn, tuna, red onion, mayonnaise and Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stuff the cool noodles each with about 1/2 cup filling and place in 1 layer in an 8 by 8-inch baking dish.

For the sauce: In a small saucepan, saute garlic and onion in olive oil over medium-high heat until browned, about 3 minutes. Add the half-and-half and bring almost to a simmer. Remove from heat and slowly whisk in the 2 cups Parmesan cheese, about 2 tablespoons at a time, until the cheese is melted and the sauce has thickened. Stir in the oregano and thyme and add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the sauce over the noodles. The pasta can be prepared up 1-2 days in advance at this point. Wrap tightly and refrigerate.

To finish: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the pasta, uncovered, until warmed through and bubbly, 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and top with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Broil until the cheese is golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Let cool 10 minutes and serve.

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