Welcome to the world of grain bowls!
What’s a grain bowl? These are bowls filled full with fresh and delicious vegetables, some protein, and a cooked whole grain. The components can often be made ahead of time, so grain bowls make a great assemble-and-go meal.
How to Make a Grain Bowl
I recently visited the kitchen of Whole Heart Provisions in Boston, a popular local grain bowl restaurant, and learned a few tricks from their chef, Rebecca Arnold.
According to Chef Arnold, a great grain bowl should deliver some surprise in every bite. She likes to cook her grains in a pot of boiling water (like cooking pasta) so they are perfectly plump and tender. She also likes to add something crunchy to give the bowl some texture.
What to Put in Your Grain Bowl
Here are some elements Chef Arnold suggests playing with:
- Whole grains: Try brown rice, quinoa, millet, farro, kamut, barley, or black rice, like we do in this recipe. Different grains provide different textures and flavors to the bowl. Try different kinds and see what you like!
- Roasted Vegetables: Roasted vegetables like squash or Brussels sprouts add great flavor to grain bowls. Make extra the next time you’re making some for dinner and save them for your grain bowls. You can reheat them before serving, or eat them at room temperature.
- Protein: Baked or marinated tofu, leftover grilled or roasted chicken, steak or pork, or hard-boiled eggs are all good additions to a grain bowl.
- Fresh greens: Try kale, collard, cabbage, spinach or any other favorite greens. Sprinkle with olive oil and salt to bring out their flavor.
- Fresh herbs: Cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, Thai basil are just a few kinds of fresh herbs you might try. They add a zesty flavor to the bowl.
- Something crunchy: Toasted nuts, fried chickpeas, corn nuts, and even Japanese crunchy snacks add a bit of texture to the bowl.
- Something acidic: Quick homemade pickles, kimchi and a tart or creamy dressing bring the flavors in your bowl together.
- Something sweet: Chewy dried fruit like currants, dried cranberries, or raisins add yet another texture to the bowl, plus some surprising bursts of sweetness.
After talking with Chef Arnold, I decided to experiment with my own rice bowls. The recipe I’m sharing today is one of my new favorite combinations.
Black rice originated in China and is a medium-grain rice that turns a deep purple color when cooked. It has a nutty flavor and a firm, chewy texture. Look for it in large urban markets like Whole Foods; you’ll sometimes find it called “forbidden rice.”
I massaged the kale for my grain bowl with olive oil, which sounds laborious, but really only takes a couple of minutes. Rubbing the leaves with your fingers breaks down some of the tough fibers and helps sweeten the kale, making it silky and flavorful.
I made my pickles for this recipe using pretty pink cauliflower florets, but cucumbers, thinly sliced radishes, grated carrots and thinly sliced beets are a few other options. Once pickled, these vegetables will keep in brine for at least one week in the fridge.
The recipe below is really just a blueprint. Use Chef Arnold’s guide above and mix and match the ingredients as you please!
Tips for Success
- Cook your grains like Chef Arnold! Chef Arnold prefers to cook her grains is in lots of salted boiling water, just as you would cook pasta. This may feel counter-intuitive, but the method produces tender grains that are perfectly cooked and separated, never gummy or mushy. Use the cooking times on your package as a guide, but bite into a few grains and go by tenderness to determine when the grains are done. Drain the grains and store them in the fridge for the week. You can reheat them before assembling your grain bowl, or just eat them as they are.
- Make-ahead grain bowl components: For this recipe, the grains, pickle brine and pickles, roasted vegetables, baked tofu, and salad dressing can all be made a few days ahead of time. The smashed cucumbers and kale can be prepped a few hours ahead, but won’t keep for longer.
- Components to add just before serving: Save the toasted nuts, greens, and herbs separate and add them to the grain bowl at the last minute so they don’t soften or wilt.
Other Grain Bowls to Try
- Mediterranean Chickpea Bowls with Tahini Sauce
- Black Bean Burrito Bowls
- Salmon Avocado Poke Bowl
- Pressure Cooker Chipotle Chicken and Rice Bowls
Black Rice Bowls with Tofu and Veggies
Red miso has a deep and intense flavor that works well in this recipe, but you could use milder white or yellow miso as well.
- For the miso ginger salad dressing
- 1 piece (1-inch) fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/2 clove garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons red miso (See recipe note)
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- For the baked tofu
- 1 block (14 ounces) extra-firm tofu
- Olive oil spray
- 3 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
- For the rice
- 1 cup black rice or forbidden rice
- 6 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- For the pickles:
- 1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
- 3 teaspoon salt, divided
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 small head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
- 3 Persian (small) cucumbers
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- For the kale
- 1 bunch kale (any kind), washed, dried and stems removed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt to taste
- To serve
- Toasted almonds, for garnish
- Cilantro leaves or Thai basil, for garnish
- 1/4 cup currants, for garnish
Make the salad dressing:
In a blender, finely chop the ginger and garlic.
Add the water, vinegar, miso, soy sauce, honey, olive oil and sesame oil and blend until smooth. (Dressing will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.)
Bake the tofu:
Preheat the oven to 475oF. Coat a baking dish or baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels.
Place the tofu in a bowl and add 3 tablespoons of the miso dressing. Toss to coat and transfer to the baking dish. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Toss with the scallions and an additional 2 tablespoons of the miso dressing. Set aside.
The tofu can be baked up to three days ahead; wait to toss with scallions and the additional miso dressing until ready to serve.
Cook the rice:
In a large saucepan over high heat, bring 6 cups of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, or until tender (taste a few grains to test). Drain in a fine meshed sieve and transfer to a bowl until ready to use. (The rice will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.)
Make the pickle brine:
In a bowl, stir together the vinegar, 1 teaspoon of the salt and sugar until the salt and sugar dissolve. Stir in the water.
Make the cauliflower pickles:
Place the cauliflower in a bowl and cover with 1 cup of the pickle brine. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. (Store in the brine, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.)
Make the smashed cucumber pickles:
With a mallet or heavy pan, gently whack the cucumbers to crack the skin. Cut them in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch pieces. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt. Set a colander over a bowl, add the cucumbers and allow them to drain for 15 minutes.
Discard the liquid in the bowl. To the now-empty bowl, add the cucumbers (the cucumbers do not need to be rinsed). Toss with the remaining pickle brine (about 3 tablespoons), soy sauce, and sesame oil.
Cucumbers can be stored for a few hours before serving, but get mushy if stored for longer.
Massage the kale:
In a large bowl, toss the kale with the oil. Using your fingers, gently massage the oil into the leaves for about 1 minute. Tear them into bite size pieces as you work. Sprinkle lightly with salt to taste.
The kale can be massaged a few hours before serving, but become wilted if stored for longer.
Assemble the bowls:
Divide the rice between four bowls and top with tofu, cauliflower pickles, smashed cucumbers, and kale. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and currants. Serve with extra dressing on the side.