Here's how to turn your leftovers into Instagram-worthy grain bowls

Three rice-bowl dishes prepared by Anna Herman in her Philadelphia home.

Somehow, arranging sliced cucumbers, pickled red cabbage, and curried chickpeas over rice magically turns scrounging for leftovers into dining. And maybe that alone explains the trending popularity of the grain bowl, especially for the home cook.

Add the ability to produce a nutritious, delicious supper with minimal effort and with Instagram-worthy results, and it's not hard to see why dinner bowls have won legions of fans.

"The grain bowl manages to straddle both that near-religious passion we have for eating well and the great American desire to have it all, particularly if what we're having tastes terrific," Carolynn Carreño writes in her new cookbook, Bowls of Plenty.

The Korean dish bibimbap is a terrific model for assembling an easy one-dish bowl. Order bibimbap in a restaurant and out from the kitchen comes a hot stone bowl filled with rice and topped with a rainbow of vegetables, sliced meat, and a fried egg, with sauces and pickled vegetables on the side. Or perhaps you're more familiar with the burrito bowl: rice on the bottom, and any combination of beans, chicken, meat, cheese, salsa, guacamole, and shredded lettuce on top.

The rice bowl concept easily expands to many multicultural options and can incorporate leftovers and special requests with ease. A large rice bowl makes a one-dish family meal centerpiece; a small bowl the perfect self-care lunch. Any grain can serve as the base of a bowl; this concept is all about flexibility.

Some of my favorite combinations are based on traditional rice cultures. Indian-style chickpea or vegetable curry is easily served over  brown rice with any number of garnishes. Cook the brown rice with coconut milk and pair it with turmeric-roasted cauliflower, toasted cashews, or coconut and few slices of cucumber, and the dish is  not only fragrant and beautiful, but a complete meal.

Black beans and rice are mainstays of Cuban cuisine, so a bowl of cilantro-flecked rice topped with spicy black beans is a perfect complement to baked or fried plantains, grilled red onions, and a slice of lime. Include sliced flank steak or grilled chicken, or stay vegetarian with roasted mixed peppers or zucchini.

The best rice bowls arrange toppings to please the eye and offer a combination of color and texture, with garnishes, dressings, or sauces to bring together the flavors. Slices should be arranged neatly, rather than mounded artlessly.

As many great cooks know, we eat first with our eyes. Studies have shown food that looks better seems to taste better. Simple additions, such as a sprig of mint or cilantro, or a few tart-sweet orange slices will complement spicy chicken visually and gustatorily. Colorful red pepper, avocado, or red onion will dress up the neutral browns of chicken and beef, and with thoughtful pairings will add piquancy, succulence, or crunch. Toasted nuts and seeds add visual and flavor interest, as do drizzles of bright herb dressings or sauces.

Rice bowls may not need a sauce but they surely need to be seasoned. If the components or rice are plain,  plan some sort of dressing or side sauce. A drizzle of herb oil, soy, and vinegar, or good hot sauce or pepper paste may be all that is required. Other good rice bowl sauces include a thinned ginger-peanut satay sauce, creamy vinaigrette, and pesto stirred into Greek-style yogurt.

Rice bowls can be served at various temperatures. I usually like my rice hot or at least warm, and toppings such as curries or stews or beans also warm. Leftover rice can be warmed gently covered in the microwave or on the stove top (add a bit of water for stove top reheating).

Saladlike toppings, such as avocado, herbs, and citrus slices are best cool, so when packing a rice bowl to reheat for lunch, pack the rice and any components that will be warm in a separate container from those toppings.

You could also give family members the chance to make their own favorite rice bowls with an assortment of toppings and garnishes set out in the center of the table. Combinations you might not have thought of may become a new favorite. Maybe rice bowls will become the new “taco-night” or maybe they will just be a regular way to easily offer a healthy, grain-based dinner.

The possibilities are endless, and the grain bowl may just win you over. Carreño explains why in her cookbook, which is also a manifesto of her way of life: "I am a food nut who wants to take care of my one and only body, and big bowls piled with grains, vegetables, beans, and small portions of animal protein are the way I have learned to do that," she writes. "In the grain bowl, we are literally able to have our cake and eat healthy, too."

Quinoa and Poached Salmon Salad with Confetti Vegetables

Makes 4-6 servings


1 cup quinoa, cooked and cooled to room temperature

1 bunch radishes, trimmed, scrubbed and diced very small

½ red onion, diced very small

1 small fennel bulb, quartered, cored, and diced very small

2 celery stalks, diced very small

Lemon Vinaigrette (see note)

12 ounces poached salmon, at room temperature or chilled

¼ cup fresh dill springs



1. Put the quinoa, radishes, onion, fennel, and celery in a large bowl. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and gently toss to combine with a rubber spatula. 

2. Gently flake the salmon into large chunks, letting them fall into the bowl with the quinoa and scatter the dill and sliced radishes (if you're using them) over the top.

3. To make the lemon vinaigrette, combine one medium, minced shallot, a tablesoon of champagne or white wine vinegar, the juice of one lemon, a teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste in a medium bowl and set aside for 5-10 minutes to soften the shallot. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream. The vinaigrette will keep, refrigerated in a covered container, for up to one week.

Bowls of Plenty, by Carolynn Carreno (Grand Central Lifestyle, 2017)

Per Serving (based on 6): 354 calories; 16 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 22 grams fat; 25 milligrams cholesterol; 461 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.

Chickpea Curry

Makes 6-8 servings


4 to 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1  2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 cups canned diced tomatoes with their juice
¾ teaspoon coarse salt
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed
2 teaspoons garam masala or good-quality curry powder
¼ cup heavy cream or full-fat coconut milk


1. Heat the oil in the bottom of a medium saucepan.

2. Add the onions and cook till barely translucent.

3. Add the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin and cumin seeds, and turmeric, and cook, stirring 2 to 4 minutes until the spices smell fragrant.

4. Add the tomatoes, salt, chickpeas, garam masala, and cream and bring to a gentle simmer for 15-20 minutes.

5. Add a bit of water or vegetable stock if you would like a bit more sauce.

Per serving (based on 8): 509 calories; 22 grams protein; 72 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams sugar; 16 grams fat; 10 milligrams cholesterol; 157 milligrams sodium; 20 grams dietary fiber.

Chipotle Chicken

Makes 4-6 servings


2 tablespoons chipotle

1 tablespoon honey

½ teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic

1½ ounces boneless chicken thighs


1. Mix the chipotle peppers and their sauce with the honey, salt, and garlic in the bottom of a nonreactive bowl.

2. Use a fork to mash up the peppers to make a paste. Add the chicken thighs and toss to coat.

3. Let chicken marinate for 15 minutes (or up to several hours) in the refrigerator.

4. Cook chicken on a baking sheet, uncovered, at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

Per serving (based on 6): 228 calories; 33 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 8 grams fat; 101 milligrams cholesterol; 292 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.

Baked Plantains

Makes 4 to 6 servings


1 clove garlic, crushed into a medium mixing bowl
2-3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼- ½ teaspoon cayenne
4 ripe plantains (skins show no green, and are well specked with black), peeled with a knife and sliced into 1-inch pieces
Juice of one lime, optional


1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. In the bowl with the crushed garlic add the oil, salt, and spices. Mix well. Add the sliced peeled plantains and toss to cover.
3. Place plantains on a baking sheet (or two as needed) with  cut side down, spread out so they are not touching.
4. Cook, turning once midway through cooking, for approximately 15 minutes, until browned and soft. Sprinkle with lime juice before serving, if desired.

Per serving (based on 6: 188 calories;2 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams sugar; 5 grams fat; no cholesterol; 393 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

Coconut Brown Rice

Makes 4 to 6 servings


2 cups long grain brown rice
1 13-ounce can coconut milk


1. In a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid place the rice, the coconut milk and salt.
2. Fill the coconut milk can with cool water and add to the rice. Bring to a boil - watching carefully so it does not overboil, turn down to a gentle simmer, cover and cook 40 minutes.
3. Turn off heat and let steam for an additional 10-15 minutes. Toss gently with a fork.

Barry Zukerman

Per Serving (based on 6): 371 calories; 6 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 16 grams fat; no cholesterol; 140milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.