Winter is Icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
— Ezra Pound
Winter is icumen in and so is our all but universal desire for carbohydrates. Thanks be to the New York Times’ Melissa Clark for offering up a simple formula for great grain bowls: one or more grains, preferably whole grains; greens; pickles (think kim chee); protein (plant-based eaters will go for tofu, hummus, nuts or nut butter, and will know not to worry); textural surprises such as avocado, nori, seeds; and a sauce to wrap it up with a bow. Her post, Grain Bowls: How to Make Your Own, is printed in full below; click to watch the video. Ezra Pound added for funsies.
The rice bowl has come a long way. Once relegated to health food restaurants and natural food shops, it was a humble, healthful, often vegetarian one-dish meal reminiscent of Japanese donburi and Korean bibimbap, rice bowls topped with meat or fish, vegetables and pickles.
Now, you’re just as likely to run into a grain bowl, made with the likes of quinoa, farro or freekeh, at the trendiest restaurants as you are at the cafe adjacent to your yoga studio.
Case in point: At Dimes, a new restaurant in Chinatown, you will find a barley bowl topped with pickled salmon and cabbage slaw. At Sqirl in Los Angeles, heirloom brown rice is mixed with cumin and Swiss chard and topped with crisp chorizo. At El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side, grits cooked in cashew milk is topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions.
For evidence that the bowl has gone mainstream, look no further than Chipotle, whose burrito bowl is the biggest selling item on the menu.
Bowls are excellent vehicles for leftovers, no matter how motley. They can accommodate the ever-widening variety of available whole grains (quinoa, kamut, farro, freekeh, wheat berries, barley and grits) that we are all supposed to be working into our diet. And they are ideal for picky eaters in the house, who can build it to suit their own tastes while ensuring that none of the toppings touch.
Gerardo Gonzalez, the chef at El Rey, calls a bowl the perfect dish, one in constant movement.
“Eating your way around a bowl is a little like tai chi,” he said. “The perfect bite doesn’t mean you have all the components together on the spoon, it’s about getting the balance of acid, sweet, salty. Every bite is a surprise, a little different from the one before it.”
When assembling a grain bowl at home, Jessica Koslow, the chef and owner of Sqirl, advises embracing variety.
“We change our bowls seasonally, varying the recipes to reflect different ingredients at their prime,” she said.
While the type of grain matters, the real artistry of the bowl is in the combination of toppings. You could spoon almost anything over your grains and call the result a bowl (and some do). But the best bowls have a balanced combination of flavors and textures, and of vegetables, proteins, sauces and garnishes. Ideally, choose a grain that complements the other elements, pairing delicate ingredients (simple steamed vegetables or fish, for example) with milder grains (white rice, grits, barley). But pretty much any grain will work with nearly anything you pile onto it.
As for vegetables, anything goes, but greenery is iconic, be it raw, steamed, roasted or sautéed. At Scratchbread in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, my bowl (served in a paper cup) had grits on the bottom, with raw kale, chunks of crisp bacon, a soft-cooked egg and jalapeño sauce layered on top. I especially like the purity and softness of steamed greens — kale, mustard, chard, collards — against the nubby grains. Feel free to use leftover vegetables on top: Those florets of sautéed cauliflower, cubes of baked beets or silky slivers of roasted red peppers can have no better home.
Now you need a protein. Think of small amounts of braised or roasted meats or fish, whether left over or freshly cooked. Vegetarians can go for tofu, tempeh, seitan or beans. And anyone can add a soft-cooked egg, preferably one with a runny yolk to coat the other ingredients like an instant sauce.
You should also have a sauce on the side for everyone to mix in to taste. Use ingredients that mesh with the flavors of the bowl. Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and rice vinegar or lime juice for Asian-inspired combinations. Pesto goes nicely with roasted red peppers, eggplant or anything else vaguely Mediterranean. Bottled hot sauce provides spice to the fire-toothed. And a basic vinaigrette will get along with practically anything else.
Once you have the bowl assembled — grains, vegetables, protein and sauce — it’s time to think about garnishes, which add character and depth. Something pickled or pungent (kimchi, preserved lemon, pickled peppers, a dash of fish sauce) keeps things interesting, and something crunchy (sesame seeds, nuts, toasted seaweed) diversifies the textures. Or combine these if you like: crunchy pickled carrots or radish, for example.
Mix and match. Then mix and match again. If you do it right, you need never serve the same bowl twice — not unless you want to, that is.
P.S. I’m a big fan of Chipotle; they’re one of the few places who have successfully bridged my transition to a plant-based diet. OneGreenPlanet does a “100 percent clean version” of Chipotle’s veggie burrito bowl.