Let’s say one of your resolutions this year is getting your kitchen in order, sorting the miscellaneous and half-full baggies into jars, tossing the expired and stale and crumbled, donating multiples (who needs six jars of ground cumin?) and things you thought you’d use but haven’t. And let’s say another of your resolutions is to start making yourself lunch—not a slapdash PB&J that inevitably smooshes into a pancake on the way to work, not six crackers and a vague idea of what you can steal from the office fridge, but real, sustaining lunch.
If that’s your Venn diagram, here’s your overlap: mixed grains.
By mixed grains, I don’t mean a health loaf or anything like that. It’s much more literal. Remember when you bought all that millet? The buckwheat groats for that granola recipe? The bulgur, which you used just a cup of for tabbouleh and have been ignoring ever since? They’re all still in the pantry, wasting away. And you can—and should—combine them all in the same pot: Do a little cook-time math so you know when to add which grain (or find two grains, like quinoa and long-grain white rice, that cook in the same amount of time), boil them together, and end up with something much greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the biggest things that slows us down in cooking a pot of grains is the grain-to-water ratio. I’m here today to free up the part of your brain that tries to remember that information. The best way I know to get fluffy, evenly-cooked grains is to bring a pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and add however much rice or quinoa or whatever I want, then drain it when it’s done—just like cooking pasta. (This is an especially valuable technique to employ when you have a tiny bit of millet or something that you are desperate to rid yourself of and don’t want to measure it out and then have to calculate how much water to cook it in.) After I’ve drained the grains into a fine-mesh sieve, which I prefer to a colander, since the latter lets smaller grains like quinoa sneak out, I spread them out on a baking sheet to cool—a safeguard against mushiness.
One quick, helpful thing to memorize: In general, I find that 1 cup uncooked grains = about 3 to 4 servings. Scale that ratio up or down to suit how many lunches or meals you want to make.
An abridged guide to grain cooking times: Start testing for doneness at...
- Couscous (no, it’s not a grain, but it is easily mixed in): 5 minutes
- Buckwheat groats (kasha): 10 minutes
- Quinoa: 15 minutes
- Millet: 15 minutes
- Bulgur: 15 minutes
- Pearled farro: 15 minutes
- White rice: 15 minutes (long grain) or 25 minutes (short grain)
- Pearled barley: 25 minutes
- Farro: 30 minutes
- Non-pearled barley or freekeh: 40 minutes
- Brown rice: 40 minutes (long grain) or 45 minutes (short grain)
- Oat groats: 45 minutes
- Black or forbidden rice: 50 minutes
Once you’ve cooked your grains, you can do any of a million things with them: Toss them with pesto, green sauce, a simple vinaigrette, curry paste, herbs, citrus juice, rice vinegar, furikake, dukkah, za’atar…or just leave it plain. This is the base for your lunches.
And, since you’re already in the creative, mix-and-match mindset, casting about for other delicious odds and ends will become easy. I like to make sure I’ve got some protein, something crunchy, something creamy, and something green to go on top of my grains.
Here are a few ideas to get you started. The best bowls will come from the very dregs of your fridge; use whatever you’ve got on hand and you’ll almost always be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Protein: Hard-boiled eggs (plain or pickled or soy saucy); canned beans tossed with an herby or garlicky chile-spiked vinaigrette; baked tofu; baked or poached chicken (rotisserie works!); tinned tuna or other fish
Crunch: Toasted nuts and/or seeds; thinly sliced or shaved vegetables (beets, radishes, cabbage, carrots, cukes, fennel—even apples or crisp pears!)
Creamy: Cubed avocado; yogurt (plain or mixed with lemon juice and zest or with tahini or with mustard or with hot sauce...); hummus
Green: A big handful of chopped herbs; shredded kale or chard massaged with a little citrus juice and olive oil
Extras: Leftover roasted vegetables; sliced shallot marinated for a few minutes with a pinch of salt and a splash of wine vinegar; roasted red peppers; olives; dates or other dried fruit; cubes of cheese
Maybe you are thinking this sounds like a lot to do while you’re scratching around in the morning before your commute, only half-lucid, with six thousand other things fighting for priority in your undercaffeinated brain. And I’d say you’re right! Which is why you should carve out an hour on Sunday night to prep all this, and pack it up into containers that night—so all you have to do on any given day is grab a pre-packed lunch out of the fridge. You won’t even have to think about it. (P.S. It’s a new year. Invest in some reusable, stacking, lunch-sized containers. I love these 3-cup-sized ones and the ones below are great, too.)
Two-Layer Sandwich Box (Set of 2)
Duo Lunch Box
How else do you use the last 1/2 cup of grains? Share your tips and ideas in the comments below.