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How to Make a Grain Bowl Without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Chuck that takeout burrito bowl out the window and mix and match the contents of your refrigerator for your new favorite weeknight meal.

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Grain Bowl

I realize that I may be alone here when I say that bowls are my favorite piece of dishware. (What, you don't have a favorite eating vessel?)

Hear me out: Unlike plates, which waste sauce and discourage you from mixing a meal's different components, bowls are vessels that empower you to combine multiple flavors and top everything off with a grand finale of dressing. And after a full day of work, few of us have the energy to sit at the dinner table with our fork and steak knife poised at a lamb chop. Enter: The grain bowl.

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Grain Bowl Ingredients

Chances are, you've inadvertently made a grain bowl out of layers of leftovers before, but these bowls, constructed of grains, vegetables, protein, and dressing, have the potential to become your go-to weeknight staple. The best part? As long as you follow the golden rule that good ingredients make good meals, they're hard to mess up -- no matter how motley the ingredients.

Here’s how to make a grain bowl, without a recipe: 

1. Pick your grain. Go the obvious route with a layer of brown rice, or take this opportunity to work ancient protein-rich grains into your diet. Think freekeh, quinoa, farro, and couscous. When in doubt, open your refrigerator and start scoping out your leftovers. Polenta, grits, wheat berries, and that box of sticky rice from your Thai takeout are all excellent options. Consider cooking your grain in chicken or vegetable broth to give it some extra flavor.

Farro for Grain Bowl

 

2. Add some vegetables. You have some options here: Add a handful of raw leafy greens or cooked seasonal vegetables, or go all out and use both. If you opt for uncooked greens, grab a fistful of your favorite salad base (spinach, arugula, kale, and radicchio are all great options) and place it on one side of your bowl -- be careful not to add too many leaves here, lest you end up with a salad.

Steamed chard, roasted beets, or sautéed mushrooms are all great options. During colder months, I usually go with roasted vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli rabe, and brussels sprouts. Add just enough vegetables to your bowl to cover roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of the grains so that there's room for protein.

 Vegetables for Grain Bowl

 

3. Pick a protein (or two!). While you can pick your grains and vegetables independent of each other, try to consider which protein will taste best with the vegetables you've chosen. Salmon, for example, pairs well with lemony sautéed spinach, and kale and bacon are a match made in heaven. Looking for a vegetarian option? Add a creamy cheese like ricotta and rejoice as it spills over your greens, or fry up some tofu or tempeh. When in doubt, a poached egg is always a good idea -- just make sure that the yolk is soft enough that it covers the rest of the ingredients with eggy goodness when it breaks.

Grain Bowl with Vegetables and Egg

 

4. Add a dressing or sauce. Here's the part where you can decide the "personality" of your grain bowl. Is it going to be Asian and tangy, classic with a touch of vinaigrette, or spicy and dredged in a thick sauce? I suggest you seek inspiration from the forgotten condiments in your refrigerator door. Pesto, harissa, Sriracha, and peanut sauce can be used with a heavy hand. Or, add a soup base like chicken broth or coconut milk to your dressing to provide a deeper flavor without overpowering the natural taste of the vegetables. I often opt for something in-between, like a vinaigrette made of red wine vinegar and honey.

Dressing for Grain Bowl 

 

5. Add some garnishes. Garnishes are the most overlooked area of grain bowls, but they can be just the thing you need to turn your weeknight meal into a pièce de résistance. Consider adding mandolined cucumber, pickled radishes, toasted seasweed, or avocado slices. Or, get some crunch with toasted panko crumbs, toasted nuts like cashews and peanuts, and seeds. Turn to herbs like cilantro and dill for a picture-perfect finish.

Garnishes for Grain Bowl

If you're looking for inspiration, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Farro + radicchio + sautéed kale and brussels sprouts + persimmons + poached egg + feta cheese + dill, with a red wine vinaigrette (pictured above)
  • Quinoa + roasted and sliced portobello mushrooms + sautéed tempeh + red pepper flakes, with a miso dressing
  • Brown rice + smothered cabbage + roasted chicken + panko 

What ingredients do you use to make your grain bowl into something special? Share with us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: not recipes, grain bowl, farro, vegetables, weeknight meal, healthy, easy weeknight dinner