July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

'Happy sauce' is highlight of flexible one-bowl lunch

The smoky romesco sauce has texture and nuttiness from the almonds, and a mild heat from the peppers. (Faith Durand)

When it comes to lunch, I have competing desires. On the one hand, I want a predictable and easy meal I can grab without diverting much attention from my work. But I also dont want to eat the same thing day after day.

Meet my answer: the modular one-bowl lunch with mix-and-match toppings, including a smoky, nutty romesco that is quite literally the secret sauce to this meal. I love this stuff so much I call it my happy sauce.

Now, sauces dont usually make it into my dinner routine, unless were talking straight-up marinara and meatballs. But I got to work with some of my favorites, including chimichurri, curried coconut and new to me romesco sauce.

That assignment turned out some of my personal favorite meals, and Ive gone back to them many times since. I found that I loved having all the components on hand, like roasted sweet potatoes, quinoa and chimichurri; I could toss them together as originally intended, or eat them separately with other meals. Chimichurri gets drizzled over steak; the quinoa can be eaten with a dollop of yogurt. Its a pleasant way to build a week of lunches (or dinners): make simple yet tasty elements and mix them up.

But my favorite takeaway from that assignment was romesco. Ive made it so many times, in so many different ways. Its like a pesto in that it includes nuts, for satisfying texture and body. But its tangy and a little sweet, like tomato sauce. Its smoky, spicy, and so, so good.

Romesco is a Spanish import, usually made of roasted red peppers and nuts, smoky and piquant, whizzed up into a thick and luxurious consistency, and great with seafood or vegetables. My version relies heavily on pantry staples instead of fresh produce, which makes it a year-round recipe for me. Dont let the length of the ingredient list alarm you; this sauce comes together very quickly.

Together with warm and chewy brown rice and tangy rainbow chard, this smoky sauce has just enough texture and nuttiness from the almonds, and a mild heat from the peppers. Eat everything together, or drizzle the sauce over a grilled chicken breast, or top the rice with the sauce and a few pieces of chorizo. I added some slices of Spanish smoked chorizo into my dish.

Separate, together, however all of these things taste good. Especially the happy sauce.

For the brown rice

4 cups water
2 cups short-grain brown rice
teaspoon salt

For the chard

8 cups chopped chard leaves and ribs, from about 8 to 10 ounces chard
1 lemon, juiced, about 3 tablespoons
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
tablespoon vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

For the romesco sauce

tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 (4-ounce) jar sliced pimento peppers, drained
1 (12-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
cup peeled almonds
cup loosely packed cup chopped Italian parsley
1 small slice sourdough bread, torn into pieces (optional omit for gluten-free dish)

Optional accompaniments to serve

Chopped roasted almonds
Minced Italian parsley
Sliced roasted chicken or smoked sausage

To cook the rice, heat the water to boiling in a 2-quart saucepan. Stir in the rice and the salt. Cover and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand covered for 5 minutes. Remove lid, fluff with a fork, then cool and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 5 days.

To cook the chard, rinse the chard well, then pat dry. Mix the lemon juice and vinegar in a small bowl.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, deep skillet or wok over high heat. Add the garlic and saut or stir-fry for 10 seconds, just until it begins to color. Add the chard, one handful at a time, waiting if necessary for it to wilt down before adding another. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper as you add the greens, and continue to stir-fry or saut. When all the chard is in the pan, pour in the lemon juice and vinegar and continue cooking for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the chard is done to your liking. Cool, then refrigerate in a covered container for up to 5 days.

To make the romesco sauce, heat the olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Add the pimento peppers and the tomatoes; stir vigorously to help the tomatoes break up. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to break down. Add the smoked paprika, vinegar, almonds and parsley, and remove from the heat.

Blend until smooth in a blender or food processor. If using the bread, add now and blend until smooth. (The bread will give the sauce a silkier texture, but its fine to leave it out for a gluten-free adaptation.) Cool and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 5 days.

Combine the separate elements into one big lunch container, or divide it among several. Warm before serving. Makes 6 servings; 6 cups brown rice, 4 cups chard, 2 cups sauce.

Per serving: 372 calories; 11 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 27 percent calories from fat); 59 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 417 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 6 g fiber.