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."