Have you ever opened your fridge door, stared into the void, then closed it in defeat and ordered delivery instead? Well, fear no more, friend, because a new food trend is on the rise, and it's totally user friendly: Grain bowls.
A grain bowl is a mishmash of a meal that combines some sort of grain + whatever else you want to put in it. They're healthy, well-balanced, one-bowl meals that are easy to make with stuff on hand. Here's your 5-step guide to getting your grain on.
How to Build Your Own Grain Bowl
When I’m putting together a grain bowl, or looking for a good recipe online, I like to ensure that it has a variety of textures and great flavors, and that each ingredient actually adds something to the dish. A basic algorithm I go for is: 1-2 grains (about a third of the bulk), 2-3 veggies (about another third), a protein, and something crunchy (in addition to whatever crunchy veggies you’re adding, if that’s your style).
As for what exactly goes in, that’s up to you, and often leftovers make the cut as the best jumping-off point. Texture should be high in your mind, as eating a big bowl of something is much more interesting when a variety of textures are included. It’s true! In studies, and I’m paraphrasing a lot here, participants were a lot more likely to keep on eating if the texture was varied from bite to bite. So, when choosing ingredients, think of how many soft, crunchy, chewy, and toothsome ingredients you can mix.
Grain Bowl Component #1: Grain
My favorite grain to include is emmer farro, an ancient grain that can be used ground up as cereal or in its whole “berry” state as a rather chewy grain. I use it for everything, substituting it for rice in Mexican preparations, sweetening it up with dried fruit and yogurt, or using it as the base of my grain bowls. One thing to remember: unless you’re buying the quick-cooking variety from Trader Joe’s or a similar store, it can take a while to cook. So, if you’re preparing some for a meal earlier in the week, make a little extra and save it specifically for a grain bowl. It can be soaked overnight for a softer texture, and can be cooked in your rice cooker (use the brown rice setting), or boiled on the stove.
If you’re already addicted to quinoa, this is one more way to integrate it into your life. The tiny, nutty little grain is lovely on its own in a grain bowl or paired with a larger grain, like barley or emmer farro, for a mix of textures. Rice and wild rice also make a great base for a grain bowl, though their nutritional values have been more debated than the aforementioned ancient grains.
Read more about whole grains.
Grain Bowl Component #2: Protein
It’s not vital to include a protein, but for me, it makes the big difference between a side dish and a main course. You can start with a protein and decide your other ingredients from there, but it’s often the last thing I think about.
The best proteins to include are ones that either have a flavor that complements the rest of your ingredients, or whose flavor can drive your choice in what to add. I love to cook chicken thighs (bone-in, skin-on) with harissa, a North African spice blend that has plenty of red chile flavor, and a lot of savory appeal. The great thing about it is that it plays well with sweet and spicy applications, so I chop up the thighs and mix in farro, chopped dried apricots, plump sultanas, crunchy hazlenuts, snappy pieces of snap peas, and whatever roasted veggies I have lying around. It was inspired by a Bon Appetit non-recipe idea and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
If you’re like me, you struggle with how to use up a rotisserie chicken, the last 3 oz of steak, or the bit of salmon I insisted on saving from a restaurant meal. Grain bowls offer the perfect solution.
Grain Bowl Component #3: Veggies
Leafy greens are a dream in grain bowls, as they tend to cling to grains when dressed, and can shepherd other things right on into your bite. I love dinosaur kale for this purpose, ripped and de-boned. If you want to make sure the leaves aren't too chewy, you can massage them with some olive oil and salt, or a bit of lemon juice.
Bitter leaves also make for a nice way to break up a bite, and radicchio and mustard greens are at the top of my ingredient list most of the time. Although heads of radicchio look little, they’re super dense and seem to go on forever, so it’s a great way to justify buying one for a salad you serve the night before.
Roasted veggies are great in grain bowls, so don’t toss those last two asparagus spears after a cookout, and let that half of a sweet potato rise again. The biggest thing to remember when using roast veggies is to keep them small. Onions, peppers, garlic spears, and eggplants are usually grilled in big pieces to keep them from falling through the grates of the grill, but they need to be chopped up into one- or two-bite pieces before putting them in your bowl. Slice snap peas and carrots on the bias for more surface area and, heck, because it looks prettier.
Grain Bowl Component #4: Crunchy Bits
Keeping it crunchy keeps it interesting, at least for me, and I often ferret around in the bowl, trying to spear a thin slice of radish or a toasted hazelnut. Toasted nuts are ah-mazing in grain bowls, and a few minutes in a cast iron pan really makes the difference between being a lust-worthy crunchy bit and a boring from-the-can flavor.
Rice crisps, crisped Parmesan, sunflower seeds, roasted chickpeas, and more are welcome inclusions. One tip: If you’re taking your grain bowl to lunch, or making enough for leftovers, leave these on the side. They’ll lose their crunch if they’re allowed to chill in the fridge with a dressed bowl of other goodies, and that’s no good for anyone.
Grain Bowl Component #5: Dressing
You don’t have to dress up your bowl with a dressing, but I like to. My number one go-to is a shallot vinaigrette, simply made from 2 parts minced shallot + 1 part lemon juice + rice vinegar + a bunch of olive oil + seasoning. I use salt and pepper and turmeric, but if you don’t want your bowl to turn yellow, leave the turmeric out and sub in some ground ginger. It’s the tangy, allium-driven dressing of my dreams, and is a lovely contrast with dried fruit.
Browse some awesome salad dressing recipes.
The 'Ultimate Comfort Food'
At The Pantry cooking school in Seattle, a Summer Grain Bowls cooking class has been a student favorite since it was launched in 2012. The school’s owner, Brandi Henderson, attributes the class’s popularity to the increasing varieties of grains available in stores, and the desire of home cooks to learn how to use them.
“Grains are definitely having a moment in cooking," says Henderson. "Farmers and grocery stores are offering more varieties than most of us have ever seen, and it's exciting to see people embrace these new options."
The class is taught by Megan Gordon, the owner of Seattle company Marge Granola, who has just completed a new book, Whole-Grain Mornings. On her syllabus are a BLT barley bowl with creamy avocado dressing; millet salad with sweet corn, tomatoes, and feta; freekeh with harissa-spiced chickpeas, olives, and caramelized onions; strawberry and basil tabbouli; and honeyed polentina with blueberries and mascarpone. From a sandwich transformed into a grain bowl to a light summer produce-rich bowl, to a sweetie ready for breakfast or dessert, it’s clear from the class menu that grain bowls are as variable as you can imagine them. And to Henderson, that’s the point.
“[Grain bowls] can be savory or sweet, they can be very simple or quite complicated. I think people gravitate towards them because they are the ultimate comfort food. Anyone can make them, they feel satisfying and nutritious, and can be a super-quick weeknight option.”
You’ll find grain bowls on restaurant menus, in tubs at the natural foods grocery store, and now — hopefully — on your own menu. Go forth and get grainy!
Farro Salad with Roasted Peppers, Feta, and Tomato-Cumin Vinaigrette
By Kim Cozzetto Maynard, The Pantry
Yield: 10 servings
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
4 teaspoons ground, toasted cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
1 tablespoon honey, or more to taste
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds red bell peppers
2 cups farro
1 pound roughly chopped broccolini
1 cup crumbled feta
- Preheat an oven to 375ºF. Remove cores from tomatoes and cut into 2-inch thick pieces. Toss with high heat oil and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes, then turn oven to 400ºF. Roast until caramelized, about 10 more minutes. Let cool.
- Place the tomatoes and the other dressing ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Adjust to taste with salt and additional oil, honey, spice, and/or vinegar.
- Over an open flame on your stovetop (or on the grill!), char the bell peppers on all sides and then place in a container to steam. Once soft, peel, seed, and slice them into 1/2-inch strips.
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the farro and simmer for 20-40 minutes, covered, until toothsome but tender. Drain well.
- Saute the broccolini in olive oil until cooked to your liking. While the farro is still warm, stir in dressing, broccolini, and roasted peppers. Season to taste. Serve with crumbled feta.
Find oodles of bowl recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.