How to Build a Grain Bowl
Play with grain combos, sauces, textures, and leftovers for bowls that pop
In the past dozen years that I’ve worked from home full time as a writer, I’ve made myself a grain bowl for lunch at least twice a week. This began as a small act of rebellion, after letting too many “lunch breaks” go by while hunched over my laptop. Around 3 p.m., I’d shovel a few slabs of Cheddar cheese, tomato, and bread into my mouth, vowing that one of these days I’d sort out my priorities and eat a real lunch.
Finally, on a nondescript Tuesday, I blocked off a full hour to make and eat lunch. I made a quick polenta and topped it with garlicky greens and a runny egg. It was simple, but I felt renewed. I was reminded how even an unembellished meal can make a big difference to my day. I continue to make all sorts of grain bowls every week. Here’s how to pull it off, and keep it interesting.
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On that note, I will now assert something potentially unpopular. A really delicious grain bowl — composed of cooked grains topped with vegetables, protein or cheese, and a bright, textural garnish — takes time. Yes, you can partially shortcut your way there by cooking the grains ahead of time, leaning on canned beans and sneaking in depth with a little added chili crisp and soy sauce. But you also have to commit to treating each step with care.
Indeed, I often sneak away from my computer sometime late morning to start a pot of farro or quinoa or to roast a quartered radicchio or broccoli florets. I’ll daydream about grain bowl concoctions during writing breaks. (Wood ear mushroom and soft scrambled egg over scallion rice! Couscous with blistered cucumber and tahini dressing!) I’ve even been known to arrive a few minutes late to calls because I was soft-boiling eggs or assembling a prickly salad that would later garnish a rice bowl. But I never regret stealing bits of time in the service of a good meal.
Flavor every layer
Lifting a grain bowl from serviceable to great requires flavoring each layer. My rule of thumb is to give each element enough love that you’d happily enough eat it on its own, starting with the grains themselves.
Because I usually make grain bowls for weekday lunch, I opt for quicker-cooking grains as the base, such as polenta, couscous, farro, quinoa, white rice, or occasionally brown rice. In a pinch, I’ll make savory rolled oats (cooked risotto-style with hot broth, diced tomato, Parmesan, spinach and a fried-egg topper, if you must know). I’ll sometimes supplement my grain base with canned beans or dried pulses. (This is a great way to use up those almost-empty bags of lentils you may have lying around; cook and label them all in one afternoon, then add them to just-cooked grains as desired).
Whatever the grain base, I always flavor and season the cooking liquid. I most often use boxed bone broth or vegetable stock — my two go-to premade stocks. But adding flavor can be as simple as dusting a teaspoon of bouillon powder into your cooking water or plunking in a Parmesan rind or half a lemon. If I feel fancy, I might squeeze tomato paste into my polenta water, or cook rice in coconut milk with turmeric and lime (inspired by Ali Slagle’s coconut-ginger rice and lentils from her book, I Dream of Dinner). Once the grains are cooked and fluffed, they get a pat of butter or a slick of olive oil and perhaps a shower of chopped fresh herbs and lemon zest.
Now apply this logic to every additional layer. For instance, sautéed kale or collard greens always appreciate sliced garlic and a finishing shot of acid, like lemon juice or vinegar. A fried egg never says no to cooking in butter spiced with Kashmiri chile powder or to a last-minute drizzle of chili crisp or vinegar. Leftover smoked fish or rotisserie chicken will thank you if you toss it with dill and lemon before adding it to the mix, as will a handful of prickly greens. Sliced avocado sings with salt, pepper, and a few drops of rice vinegar or lime juice.
Mix grains and textures
The best grain bowls offer up a range of textures. Cafe Robey, on the ground floor of Chicago's Robey hotel, offers a master class on this with a grain bowl of brown rice and quinoa. The mixed-grains base is topped with sautéed kale laced with red chilies, soft-roasted sweet potatoes, a five-minute egg and a bedazzling of pistachio-sesame crunch. A swipe of garlicky hummus on the plate injects tangy, creamy richness into every bite.
This doesn’t mean you have to commit to half a dozen cooking methods and a heap of pans every time you want to make a grain bowl. It can be as simple as sprinkling walnuts and blue cheese over a chopped kale and grain salad. I keep walnuts, cashews and roasted peanuts around for just such occasions; plus several canned bean varieties (chickpea, cannellini and pinto). I am never without one or two preserved pepper varieties, be they pepperoncinis, jalapeños, giardiniera, cherry peppers or roasted red peppers. (The brine from a jar of spicy pickled peppers in particular is a delightful addition to almost any dressing.) I also maintain a small hoard of tinned and smoked fish, which add protein without any heavy lifting, plus terrific depth of flavor.
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Other staples that serve grain bowls well include tahini (great for quick hummus and to enrich dressings), an assortment of acids (vinegars, lemons, limes, mustard), and multiple options for adding salt or brininess, such as fish sauce, soy sauce, and feta. Bonus points if said item also lends texture, like kimchi, capers or chili crisp. I always have one or two kinds of crunchy veggies on hand, like radishes, broccoli, cabbage and cucumbers — which are good raw, and lend even more interest if you sear or roast them before adding. I also keep hefty leafy greens that can stand up to being dressed in advance (romaine, kale, radicchio, collards) and lots of fresh herbs. And, of course, when in doubt, put an egg on it.
Start in your comfort zone
If all this freewheeling grain bowl building fills you with dread, start with flavor combinations you already know and love. Say you always have tofu, fish sauce and lime on hand. Cube the tofu and toss with the fish sauce, lime juice and zest and a little chopped jalapeño. While those flavors mingle, cook a pot of rice or quinoa in water spiked with soy sauce. Finish the grains with a bit of lime and chopped scallions, then top with your tofu (and perhaps a few cucumber slices dressed in lime, if you feel fancy).
Or maybe you make a killer tuna salad sandwich. Build your go-to tuna salad base while you cook farro in water with smashed garlic, lemon zest and salt. Chop some romaine or radicchio and toss the leaves with lemon, salt and olive oil. Now combine the whole thing, tossing well. Pick up your fork and drop the mic. You’ve just conquered the grain bowl.
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