Step away from that ham sandwich! St Albans’ Becky Alexander is bringing the pleasure (and power) of plants to lunch, writes Talia Hull.
Food writer and journalist Becky Alexander is passionate about eating well. Based in St Albans where she has lived with her family for over 20 years, she juggles a career editing books for PenguinRandomHouse, reviewing the Herts food scene and judging for the Great Taste Awards. And now she’s on a mission to transform lunch.
A survey of workers’ lunches pre-pandemic found one in three of us are creatures of habit, eating the same thing every day, with 70 per cent revealing that the ham sandwich was their most popular lunchtime meal. If that all sounds a bit dull, unhealthy and bad for the planet, Becky hopes her new book, The Green Lunch Box, will help change things. With 60 vegetarian and vegan lunchbox-friendly recipes, this compact and practical book features simple, nutritious lunchtime alternatives to the ham sarnie.
‘Brits are reluctant to cutting out meat all together so my idea is, well, why not try at lunch?’ says Becky of the idea behind the book. ‘We don’t need animal protein every day, let alone every meal, so ditch the little packets of chicken bits or tuna salads and together that will make a massive difference.’
While we all want to be good to our planet, we also want tasty food, and Becky’s recipes do sound delicious. I love that as well as a standard index, you can search for recipes that only take five minutes to put together or that utilize leftovers, or can be made the night before.
It feels long overdue to have a cookery book organized in a way that is relevant to how people actually live their lives and I’ve already marked a number of recipes I’m eager to try. Ingredients such as carlin peas, grown in the UK, are new to me but otherwise my store cupboard contains the lentils, chickpeas, nuts and black beans needed for many of the recipes. I only need to shop for fresh veg and herbs to have a winning lunch.
‘Cans of cooked black beans, chickpeas and lentils are cheap and easy to use – you can add them straight to salads and wraps.’
Becky’s eating has changed considerably since her typical 70s and 80s childhood diet of fish fingers for tea. These days her family have their own preferences and take it in turn to cook the evening meal. ‘Two of us are vegetarian and two eat meat occasionally. It’s a juggle but we work it out – we all like it when we have tacos with a chilli and salsas or a large bubbling lentil cottage pie. We get a veg box so that tends to lead what we cook. ‘
But lunchtime is Becky’s domain and her book evolved from the meals she would make for her family while she and her husband were both working from home. The soups, salads and roast vegetable dishes can be found in her delightfully visual book with gorgeous illustrations by Sally Caulwell and photos of finished recipes.
It all sounds fabulously healthy and virtuous but if we are to break away from our repetitive consumption, how do we change our mindset? Becky says it’s about being good to yourself. ‘You need and deserve to take a break from your work, whatever it is, and refuel for the afternoon. A decent hot food flask is great for soups and hot lunches. If you have a lunch bag with ice packs you don’t need to rely on a work fridge. ‘
The UK has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world – a big contributor to planet heating carbon emissions. Add to this that most lunch packaging is single-use and very little gets recycled, and making personal changes can have an impact.
‘I used to eat meat until about five years ago,’ Becky says. ‘In my job as a journalist I read so many reports about climate and how animals are raised for meat that I just couldn’t justify it any more. I’m more vegetarian than vegan in that I might eat cheese now and then, or fish if I’m on holiday near the coast. I think if we all cut back on eating animals and try the rich variety of other foods out there it will make a massive change. ‘
With plant proteins and a variety of vegetables, Becky says you won’t have that energy slump mid-afternoon, plus it’s hard to argue with her statement that ‘buying lunch from a petrol station or queuing at a shop in your lunchbreak isn’t that enjoyable ‘.
Eating according to the season is important too, Becky says, but so is eating for how you’re feeling on the day and two of her favorite recipes right now include a broad bean and pea ‘guacamole’ on sourdough, and a spicy black bean soup with dark chocolate. Chocolate soup? ‘The chocolate is optional but trust me, it works!’
The Green Lunch Box by Becky Alexander is out now. For more green eating inspiration, St Albans Sustainability Week takes place from May 15- 31, sustainablestalbans.org
Broad bean & pea ‘guacamole’ on sourdough
If you want to cut down on your avocado habit, try this vibrant, protein-packed lunch instead. It’s also nice with crumbly cheese on top. If you are taking this to work, just add another slice and make it into a sandwich – easy!
Ingredients for one lunch
50g broad beans (fresh or frozen), podded
50g frozen petis pois
Zest and juice of ½ lime
Hertfordshire rapeseed oil (or olive oil)
1 slice of sourdough
1 garlic clove, peeled
Chilli flakes, for sprinkling
Sea salt and black pepper
Method (Prep 10 mins, cook five mins)
Put the broad beans and peas in a pan of simmering water and cook for five minutes. Tip into a colander and rinse under cold water. Fish out the broad beans and peel off any skins.
Reserve a few broad beans for decoration if you like, then put the rest in a blender with the peas, lime zest, juice and a teaspoon of oil. Whizz to combine and roughly chop. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toast the bread. While still hot, drizzle with a little more oil and rub the garlic clove over it. Pile the bean-pea mixture on top, add chilli flakes to taste, and more lime juice, if you like.
Butterbean & halloumi salad
I ate a lunch like this in one of my favorite St Albans cafes and then came up with this version at home. You can eat this warm or cold, so its fine to take to work or eat at home.
Ingredients for two-three lunches
1 tbsp Hertfordshire rapeseed oil (or olive oil)
2 spring onions, chopped
1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
1 x 400g can cooked butterbeans, drained and rinsed
200g halloumi or halloumi-style vegan cheese, cubed
2 tsp dried mixed herbs or oregano
2 tbsp apple cider or wine vinegar
2 handfuls of salad leaves (add any other leftover salad you have in the fridge if you like!)
Method (Prep five mins, cook five mins)
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat and add the spring onions, red pepper, butterbeans and halloumi. Cook for five minutes, stirring often, until the butterbeans have taken a little color and the halloumi is slightly browned.
Stir in the herbs and vinegar, then season to taste with black pepper. Serve on top of the salad leaves. Toss just before eating, so the leaves are covered in some of the oil and vinegar.
Carrot cake bliss balls
These are so quick and easy to make and much more eco-friendly than buying snack balls wrapped in single-use plastic. Store them in the fridge (they will last about a week, covered) and munch when you need an energy boost.
Ingredients for six balls
50g walnuts (broken pieces is fine)
6 or 7 dates, chopped roughly
1 small carrot, peeled and finely grated
Sp tsp mixed spice or ground cinnamon
A little lemon zest
Method (Prep five mins)
Put everything in a blender and whizz to combine. Don’t worry if the dates and walnuts are a little chunky.
Roll the mixture into six balls using your hands.
Put them in the fridge to firm up and store there until you’re ready to eat.
Top tip: You can also use any nuts and dried fruits you like in these. You can also roll them in desiccated coconut or cacao powder.