Get Bowled Over by Great Grains (Plus, a Few Recipes to Try at Home)

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Photo by Maddie Burton

Grains do OK on a plate, but mound them into a bowl and they are a terrific foundation supporting heaps of veggies, legumes, leafy greens, nuts, proteins and, depending on the dish, fruit. These concoctions have been dubbed “grain bowls” and taken over menus across the country. Spanish chef José Andrés, who debuted his new veggie-centric cafe Beefsteak in 2015, says, “There is nothing more comforting than a bowl full of beautiful vegetables and warm, filling grains. This is the bounty of the earth in a bowl!”

Grain bowls can be hot, warm or cold; sweet or savory; and accented with a wide range of ethnic flavors. They lend different textures to a dish – from soft bulgur wheat to crunchy quinoa to toothsome farro – and contain fiber and protein. You can pick just one grain for your base or mix them up like chef Camille Becerra’s complex bowl of red rice, quinoa, farro, wheat berries and brown rice.

If you don’t recognize the grain by name, don’t be intimidated. Instead, get familiar with grains like amaranth, a small kernel that’s packed with protein; kamut (also called khorasan), an heirloom grain that offers vitamin E; or sorghum, a spherical grain that’s gluten-free. For your next lunch or dinner, draw inspiration from these trend-setting grain bowls from cafes around the country.

Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse, Chicago

If there is a grain expert in the country, it would have to be the husband-and-wife team behind Baker Miller. There they showcase locally sourced grains that have been grown to their own specifications in housemade bread loaves, pastries, breakfast dishes (think stone-cut oats) and, of course, their grain bowl. All of their organic, pesticide-free grains are milled onsite.

Baker Miller’s Grain Bowl (pictured above, photo by Maddie Burton)

For the grains:

2 cups vegetable stock

2 cups cracked soft wheat (available from grocers or online through Baker Miller )

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon ground sage

For the vegetables:

1 cup butternut squash, cubed

1 cup Brussels sprouts, thinly shaved

Olive oil, as needed for roasting

Salt

Pepper

Bring vegetable stock to a boil, then add salt and ground sage. Slowly stir in the cracked wheat. Cover and let simmer on low heat until cooked thoroughly (approximately 15 to 20 minutes). Set aside in a bowl.

Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil over butternut squash and mix with hands. Sprinkle with salt and bake on cookie sheet in a 350 degree F oven for approximately 20 to 25 minutes or until tender. In a separate roasting pan, put Brussels sprouts and cover with a little olive oil and salt.

Set in a 350 degree F oven until bright green and just slightly soft, approximately 15 minutes. Top cracked wheat with the roasted vegetables and toppings like preserved cherries, crumbled feta, freshly cut basil and a soft-poached egg. Finish with a few rotations of the pepper mill.

The Elk, New York City

Celebrity chef Sam Talbot designed the menu at The Elk, a cozy coffeehouse in the West Village, which evokes his own healthy lifestyle. His version is a seasonal market bowl featuring brown rice. “Rice bowls capture and celebrate seasonal market food effortlessly,” says Talbot. “The grain can ever change, as does the vegetable choices.” He adds, “Any protein works wonderfully as well. Creative as you can get, nutritional as you can be. What’s not to love or want?” We agree.

The Elk’s Market Bowl

Serves 6-8

For rice (or substitute your favorite grain):

1 cup brown rice

2 cups water

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

Combine ingredients and bring water to boil. Once boiling, lower heat to simmer. Cook until all water has been absorbed, approximately 30 to 45 minutes.

For vegetables:

Choose a few of your favorite seasonal veggies from the market. Currently on our menu: Brussels sprouts, beets, parsnips and carrots from our local farmers market.

Cut up vegetables into 1- to 2-inch pieces, approximately 4 to 5 cups’ worth

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Combine ingredients and toss to coat vegetables. Roast on sheet pan for 25 to 30 minutes, until all vegetables are cooked through. Cool for 30 minutes. For vinaigrette:

1 small shallot, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 1 teaspoon honey

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In small bowl, combine ingredients with whisk.

For egg:

Bring small pot of salted water to boil. Once boiling, add egg. Cook for 8 minutes on boil. Remove egg from water and run under cold water. De-shell and cut in half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Assembly:

When vegetables are finished cooling, combine with the vinaigrette and toss to coat. You can use and little or as much as you like. Top with some roughly chopped basil and scallions (4 tablespoons each). Also optional, top with 4 tablespoons of roughly chopped shiso.

Serve in a bowl along with a scoop of rice and the soft-boiled egg.

Beacon Coffee & Pantry, San Francisco

On the opposite coast, San Franciscans head to Beacon Coffee & Pantry for their spot-on coffee and Red Quinoa and Kale Bowl, one of the most-popular items on the menu.

Red Quinoa and Kale Bowl

1 bunch dino kale, thinly sliced

1 cup red quinoa, chilled

1/2 cup pitted olives, chopped

Fresh or crumbled feta cheese

Juice of 2 lemons

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Pomegranate seeds

Sliced almonds (optional)

Cook the quinoa as per directions (1 cup of quinoa needs about 2 cups of water) for about 20 to 25 minutes until water is mostly absorbed.

Fluff and put quinoa in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator to cool for about 15 minutes. After it’s cooled, add thin ribbons of kale and olives, then mix.

Crumble the feta over the quinoa mixture. Then add pomegranate seeds and almonds to mixture as well.

In a small bowl combine lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Whisk with a fork, and pour the dressing over the quinoa mixture. Toss it all together and enjoy!

Cava Grill, Washington, D.C.

If you liked those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, you’ll like the idea that you don’t really need a recipe to mimic the grain bowls from Cava Grill. Their build-your-own menu includes a Rice Bowl offering a base of either saffron basmati rice or brown basmati rice. Or folks can order the Greens + Grains, and mix rice with salad greens (organic arugula, spinach, romaine, mesclun or a super-green mix).

Once you pick your base, you can build your bowl with items such as a feta and harissa hummus or proteins like braised lamb, grilled meatballs and more. There’s really no wrong way to do it; just go for it.

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.