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Grain Bowls at Home

By Andrea Geary Published

There's a reason you order grain bowls at a counter rather than make them at home: Preparing multiple unique elements is a project. But what if you apply some strategy?

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been eating from bowls for at least 20,000 years. But never have bowls been as trendy as they are now. Noodle bowls, breakfast bowls, veggie bowls, taco bowls, and more (what's a Buddha bowl?) are all big sellers in the fast-casual dining scene, and I can see why: In a single vessel, you get a healthful, vibrant mix of complementary flavors and textures. Everything mingles as you eat, creating a uniquely satisfying experience.

I particularly enjoy bowls built around grains: Heaped onto a base of earthy, nubby kernels, you'll typically find some cooked vegetables, a protein, a potent dressing, a pickled element, and a crunchy garnish.

I knew that creating a grain bowl from scratch would be a project. After all, what makes a bowl so appealing is that it offers six or seven distinct components. Sure enough, when I made my first one in the test kitchen, hours went by—and there were mountains of dishes to wash. But I was rewarded with a terrific (and terrifically varied) meal.

If I could streamline the process, I might just be able to turn grain bowls into a reasonable at-home endeavor. As I considered the challenge, timelines and opportunities for multitasking swirled in my head. I was thinking less like a cook and more like a project manager.

Goal Setting

Before diving in, I drafted a mission statement of sorts: Efficiency and organization would be key—second only to great taste, which is always paramount. The bowls had to be healthful and colorful. I would use as few ingredients as possible (repurposing ingredients would help achieve that goal) and as little equipment as I could get away with. Finally, I wanted to develop several recipes to suit varied tastes.

I outlined a vision for my first bowl. The protein would be salmon: It fit in nicely with my guidelines of speed, ease, and healthfulness. Brown rice seemed like a good choice for the grain; its nutty taste and chewy texture make it ideal for a bowl. It was also appealing because it can simply be boiled and drained rather than simmered via the more finicky absorption method, which requires a prescribed amount of liquid. Rice and salmon work well with a variety of seasonings; here, I decided to go for an Asian spin. I'd work out the remaining details as I went along.

Taking roughly 30 minutes to prepare, rice was the most time-consuming element of the dish. I put a pot of water on to boil, and while it heated, I wasted no time getting started on the pickled element. Making pickles is a profitable undertaking if there ever was one. They require almost no work—just a bit of time—yet the flavor payout is huge. I simply sweetened white vinegar with a little sugar, enlivened it with grated fresh ginger, and then stirred in sliced cucumber. I set the cukes aside to soak, put the rice into the now-boiling water, and continued to work.

We drain the pickling liquid from the vegetables and save it to use as the acidic component of a dressing for the grain bowls.

Trending Toward Greatness

On to the vegetables and salmon. Stovetop techniques would be inefficient since they require a certain amount of babysitting. Roasting, however, is mostly hands-off and would leave me available to check more tasks off my list. As I thought about ways to crank out two or three components at once, another trend came to mind: sheet-pan meals. Loading multiple ingredients onto a single baking sheet would be a fuss-free way to cook items in tandem.

I decided on shiitake mushrooms and carrots; both would be tender in about 20 minutes as long as I cut the carrots thin. The vegetables would need more time in the oven than the salmon, so I would give them a head start at 500 degrees before lowering the heat and adding the salmon fillets.

I tossed the carrots with oil and salt and spread them on one half of a baking sheet. I gave the shiitake mushroom caps a similar treatment, adding some water to the mix so that steam would jump-start their cooking, before spreading them out on the other half of the sheet.

After 10 minutes, the carrots and mushrooms were starting to soften and brown, so I removed the sheet from the oven and pushed the vegetables to either side, making room in the center of the sheet for four salmon fillets that I had brushed with hoisin sauce to create a sweet glaze. I returned the sheet to the oven, which I had turned down to 275 degrees, for 10 minutes—just enough time to gently cook everything through.

We give the vegetables a head start and then push them to either side of the baking sheet to make room for the salmon fillets.

Recycle, Reuse

Things were humming right along. The only remaining element was the dressing, which meant I needed oil and acid. I glanced at my workstation, spotting the cucumbers soaking in lightly sweet vinegar. There was the acid. To give the vegetable oil for the dressing some personality, I sizzled sliced scallion whites and ginger in it for just 30 seconds, until their aromas were released.

As I waited for the infused oil to cool, I realized that the next time around, I could maximize productivity by making the scallion-ginger oil before anything else. It could cool as I prepared other items, and then it would be ready to go when it was time to mix the dressing.

I carried on, combining a few tablespoons of the pickling liquid with the oil and a little more of the hoisin sauce that I'd just painted onto the salmon. I took a taste: With very little work, I'd achieved a deeply complex, sweet-tart dressing.

Ready for assembly, I pulled out four shallow bowls. To avoid any dry grains, I tossed the rice with some of the dressing before arranging the hoisin-glazed salmon, roasted shiitakes and carrots, and gingery cucumbers on top. More dressing and showers of toasted sesame seeds and sliced scallion greens finished the bowl with final layers of crunch and freshness. I would pass sriracha at the table for those who liked a spicy kick. This bowl was everything I'd hoped for, and I'd pulled it off in about an hour.

With my maximum-efficiency bowl complete, I used my template to create three more: another Asian-inspired bowl featuring honey-sriracha tofu and bulgur; a chicken and brown rice bowl with Southwestern accents such as chipotle, lime, and pepitas; and a final bowl combining farro and sausage with roasted broccoli rabe, red peppers, and pickled grapes.

Mission accomplished: Here were four hearty but light, great-tasting bowls that didn't require tons of ingredients, time, or equipment.

Recipe Brown Rice Bowl with Vegetables and Salmon

There's a reason you order grain bowls at a counter rather than make them at home: Preparing multiple unique elements is a project. But what if you apply some strategy?

Recipe Bulgur Bowl with Vegetables and Marinated Tofu

There's a reason you order grain bowls at a counter rather than make them at home: Preparing multiple unique elements is a project. But what if you apply some strategy?

Recipe Southwestern Brown Rice Bowl with Vegetables and Chicken

There's a reason you order grain bowls at a counter rather than make them at home: Preparing multiple unique elements is a project. But what if you apply some strategy?

Recipe Farro Bowl with Vegetables and Sausage

There's a reason you order grain bowls at a counter rather than make them at home: Preparing multiple unique elements is a project. But what if you apply some strategy?

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