Ahead of the Pack: 3 Great Lunch Upgrades

It’s time to give your lunch an exciting upgrade.

courtesy-of-cassandra-stiltner

(From left to right) Try Jax Fish House’s lobster roll, Cuba Cuba Cafe’s crispy pork salad or Vert Kitchen’s spicy chicken thigh sandwich for lunch. Yum! Photo by Cassandra Stiltner

Ziploc bags, portable snacks and PB&J just hopped back on the hot commodity list: School is about to be back in session. But when you’re packing the kids’ lunches, don’t forget to make your own midday meal too. We asked three Denver eateries for packable, grown-up recipes that are worth putting on repeat—complete with sides and kid-friendly twists. Sad desk lunch? Buh-bye.

VERT KITCHEN
Kaitlin Skilken, senior brand manager, and Noah Stephens, chef and owner 704 S. Pearl St.

Main attraction: Spicy chicken thigh sandwich with tahini-yogurt sauce, cabbage slaw and sliced radishes
Side show: Classic crudités such as cucumbers, bell peppers, radishes and carrots
Why it works: “We love chicken thighs, and cabbage is a great alternative to lettuce in a home-packed lunch,” Skilken says. “It has a hearty texture that stands up against moisture, so it will still be crunchy when you sit down to eat your sandwich at lunch.”
Keep it fresh: To keep the baguette from getting soggy, wait to add just the chicken when packing your lunch and top with the slaw and sauce right before you sit down to eat.
For the kids: Don’t roast the chicken in Sriracha and use mayonnaise instead of tahini sauce.

SPICY CHICKEN THIGH SANDWICH
Makes 3 sandwiches

INGREDIENTS
CHICKEN THIGHS
2 pounds chicken thighs (for a veggie version, substitute carrots for the chicken)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Sriracha Salt and pepper

TAHINI-YOGURT SAUCE
2 tablespoons tahini
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly chopped parsley
1 tablespoon water Salt and pepper

CABBAGE SLAW
4 cups shredded cabbage
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

SANDWICH
1 full-length baguette
6-10 red radishes, sliced thin
¼ cup tahini-yogurt sauce
⅔ cup cabbage slaw

DIRECTIONS
TO MAKE THE CHICKEN THIGHS: Toss thighs in the vegetable oil and Sriracha. Lay flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 400 F for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
TO MAKE THE SAUCE: Mix all ingredients and set aside.
TO MAKE THE SLAW: Toss all ingredients together and set aside.
TO MAKE THE SANDWICH: Slice the baguette lengthwise (but not all the way through) and carefully open. Add the chicken, then radishes, and wrap with parchment paper. When you’re ready to eat, spread sauce on the top side of the baguette and top the chicken side with slaw.

CUBA CUBA CAFÉ
Kristy Bigelow, owner 1173 Delaware St.

Main attraction: Ensalada Cubana
Side show: Plantain chips with mojo criollo dipping sauce and a mojito—“if you can get away with it,” says Bigelow.
Why it works: “The pork is time consuming, but once it’s cooked you can use it for Cuban sandwiches and roasted pork plates, too.”
Keep it fresh: Warm the pork (in a pan, if you can) right before you toss it with the salad to keep it extra crispy.
For the kids: Use fewer veggies.

ENSALADA CUBANA
INGREDIENTS
3 ounces romaine lettuce
1 ½ ounces hearts of palm
2 ounces tomato
2 ounces (about 1/3 of 1) avocado, fanned out
¾ ounces red onion
1 ounce sherry vinaigrette
2 ounces crispy pork (shred and crisp your favorite pre-cooked pork or use recipe below)
3 plantain chips for garnish

CRISPY PORK
1 pork shoulder
1 head of garlic
12 ounces Goya mojo criollo
2 tablespoons salt

DIRECTIONS
TO MAKE THE PORK: Cut large 1-inch slits into a pork shoulder and stuff each slit with garlic cloves. Marinate in mojo criollo and salt, covering the pork in parchment paper and then foil, overnight. Then cook at 350 F for 8 to 9 hours. Shred and sear until crispy in a pan.
TO MAKE THE SALAD: Cut romaine lettuce to desired size. Finely chop the other ingredients, excluding the avocado and pork. Place the fanned avocado on top, then the sherry vinaigrette, then the pork. Garnish with 3 whole plantain chips.

JAX FISH HOUSE
Sheila Lucero, executive chef LoDo location: 1539 17th St.

Main attraction: Jax lobster roll
Side show: Kettle salt-and-vinegar chips and lemonade
Why it works: “Although lobster can sound intimidating, it is really easy to prepare and you could set this all up the day before. If you keep it cold, it will travel well.”
Keep it fresh: “I would toast the bread ahead of time, and keep it separate. If you have time and a bowl, I would even bring the celery mayo and lobster separately, and mix them together when you’re ready to eat,” Lucero says.
For the kids: Substitute warm butter for the celery mayo. (Yum!)

JAX LOBSTER ROLL
INGREDIENTS
LOBSTER
2 1 ½-pound live Maine lobsters
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 bay leaf 1 lemon, cut in half
2 gallons water

CELERY MAYO
1 ½ cups mayonnaise
3 stems celery, small dice
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon black peppers

SPLIT-TOP ROLLS
4 English split-top rolls (or hot dog buns)
2 tablespoons melted butter

SANDWICH
½ pound bacon, finely diced and cooked until crispy
Lettuce

DIRECTIONS
TO MAKE THE LOBSTER: Place all ingredients, except lobster, in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add lobsters and cook for 12 minutes. Cool in an ice bath, then pull all the meat out of the shell. Refrigerate until ready to eat.
TO MAKE THE MAYO: Mix all the ingredients together and set aside.
TO MAKE THE ROLL: Mix lobster with the celery mayo. Taste and adjust seasoning with lemon and salt as needed. Add melted butter to a hot pan or griddle and toast the rolls until golden. Then add lettuce and lobster and top with bacon.

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