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 layer multiple flavors and top everything off with a grand finale of dressing. Which brings me to grain bowls.
Shop the Story
Chances are, you've inadvertently made a grain bowl out of leftovers before. But these bowls—made up 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.
How to Make a Grain Bowl
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, just open your refrigerator and scope out your leftovers. Polenta, grits, wheat berries, and that box of rice from your lefover takeout are all excellent options. Consider cooking your grain in chicken or vegetable broth to add extra flavor.
2. Bring some vegetables into the mix.
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 for cooked vegetables, but really, the sky's the limit. 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 half to three-quarters of the grains so that there's room for protein.
3. Pick a protein (or two!).
While you can pick your grain 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? Plop in 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 blankets the rest of the ingredients with its runny goodness when it breaks.
4. Drizzle on your favorite dressing or sauce.
Here's the part where you can decide the "personality" of your grain bowl. Is it going to be tart and tangy, creamy and dreamy, or super-duper spicy? 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.
5. The finishing touch: Add some garnishes.
Garnishes are the most overlooked component of grain bowls, but they can be just the thing you need to turn an average weeknight meal into a pièce de résistance. Consider adding mandolined cucumber, pickled radishes, toasted seasweed, or avocado slices. Another idea: Get some crunch in with toasted panko crumbs, toasted nuts (like cashews and peanuts), and seeds. You can also turn to herbs like cilantro and dill for a picture-perfect finish.
What ingredients do you use to turn your grain bowl into something special? Share with us in the comments below!
This article was updated by the Food52 Editors in July 2020 to include more grain bowl ideas and tips. Photos by James Ransom.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).