Monday, January 22, 2018

Some Thoughts on Grain Bowls… Three Examples… and One Vinaigrette

For years I have been teaching…and posting…recipes and ideas for grain pilafs and salads.  To be honest, it has very little to do with the fact that whole grains are supposed to be good for me.  It just so happens that I like them.   Whether the menu includes one of the recently reintroduced grains (freekeh or farro)…a done-to-death trendy grain (quinoa)…or a soft porridge-like grain (polenta or risotto)…I’m there…spoon in hand.  I have never thought much about why I like grains so much (clearly not everyone feels the same way).  But in trying to guess at the reason, I have decided that it probably has something to do with the fact that I grew up on hot breakfast cereals. 

My mother never purchased any of the boxed, sugar-saturated cold cereals that many of my peers were enjoying.  If I wanted a cold cereal, I had a choice of Grape Nuts or Miniature Shredded Wheat.  Besides the fact that neither of these appealed to me very much (of the two, Grape Nuts was my preference), I found any cold cereal pretty off-putting since they were all reduced to mush in short order by the addition of the milk.  A bowl of hot cereal (particularly during the winter months) was vastly preferable.  Better yet was a soft cooked egg with buttered toast—even though I grew up in the era when everyone was removing eggs from their diets for “health” reasons.  (I count myself lucky that my mother never succumbed to this insanity.)

To this day I adore a soft cooked or poached egg on toast….for any meal of the day.  It did not occur to me until I began to consider why I like whole grains so much that—like a soft, runny egg—they are for me what we all mean when we say “comfort food”…. a food that conjures up memories of a time when someone else was taking care of us and making us feel warm, full and safe.

It is unfortunately not within my power to turn any food into a source of this kind of comfort for anyone.  But I can and will continue to try and share my love for grains by presenting them in their best light:  properly cooked…properly seasoned…and accompanied by all manner of delicious ingredients. 

All of this brings me to my recent obsession with grain bowls.  If you follow me on Instagram, you have probably noticed.  I am late to the party when it comes to the grain bowl.  (They have been “a thing” for several years now.)  But I am, as I have just pointed out, not late to grains.  And the fact of the matter is that there is really very little difference between a grain bowl and a grain pilaf or salad (both of which can be found in abundance on my blog).  As a friend and I were discussing the other day, a grain bowl is to a grain pilaf or salad what a composed salad is to a tossed salad—the ingredients in the former are arranged artfully (one hopes) on the plate and those in the latter are mixed up before they ever hit the plate.  All of the basic “rules” of how to create one will apply to the other.

The greatest advantage of a grain bowl over a pilaf or salad is they let you, the eater, create different combinations of flavor in every single bite.  To me, this adds in a way to the child-like pleasure I seem to derive from grains.  It is almost like being given permission to play with your food:  Taking your fork and dipping it here…dragging it there…in each bite combining the tastes and textures that please you most. 

There are of course some basic tips that will help you build a delicious grain bowl, but rather than write my usual “how to” post (many others have already done that….The Kitchn, Fine Cooking, The New York Times, Food52, and Williams Sonoma…just to name a few)….I thought I would illustrate how to create a grain bowl by sharing how I put together a few that we have enjoyed recently.  (I am including component recipes either as links to old posts in the text…or at the bottom of this post.)

It all started a few weeks ago when I noticed a colorful looking dish in Feast Magazine that featured some favorite winter vegetables (sweet potatoes and cauliflower).  The dish didn’t include any grains, but it was artfully arranged in a bowl…just like a grain bowl.  In addition to the “look” of the dish, the presence of some black beans made me think of brown rice.  I like brown rice, but I don’t cook with it very often (I have only featured it once on my blog).  The main reason for this is it takes so long to cook when compared to other grains I like.  But I don’t shy away from long cooking times in other ingredients, so I’m not sure why I would with brown rice.  With a little advance planning, the cooking time isn’t a problem.  And it is so good in combination with black beans that I thought the little extra time involved would be worth it.    

The dish that inspired my grain bowl included a generous drizzle of a sauce of pureed cashews and almonds seasoned with ginger, turmeric, garlic and lemon.  I decided to deconstruct this sauce and use the spices to season the roasted vegetables (along with a little added coriander), toast and chop the cashews for final garnish with minced parsley, cilantro and scallions and drizzle the whole thing with a lime vinaigrette seasoned with garlic and cumin.  A scoop of plain yogurt (I used traditional full-fat…but Greek would be nice…or Labneh…) was the final touch.  It was fantastic.

Another grain bowl I made recently was inspired by a breakfast out with some friends.  We were at a local coffee shop…and it was late morning….right about the time I’m hungry for a little something sweet.  So that’s what I had…a sweet and tender little financier.  Both of my friends ordered a delicious looking (and tasting!...I got to have a bite) avocado toast with a runny fried egg.  Well…I couldn’t get that toast out of my mind all day.  So for dinner I decided make a grain bowl featuring avocado and egg.  

My grain of choice for my avocado and egg grain bowl was freekeh (currently my favorite grain).  I cooked it using the pilaf method with some diced onion and seasoned it with a little allspice and cinnamon.  Besides the sliced avocado and a poached egg, I added a pile of carrots roasted with olive oil and a smidge of honey, a spoonful of harissa, a generous drizzle of leftover cumin and lime vinaigrette, and a final shower of sliced cilantro and toasted, broken pine nuts.  This too was excellent. Eggs are wonderful with grain bowls…just remember when you poach (or fry) an egg for a grain bowl to make sure that you leave the yolk nice and runny (it makes a great sauce!)

The most recent grain bowl I made is a great example of how one of the best uses for a grain bowl is as a way to use up a few leftovers…particularly for one person.  So often I find myself with only enough leftovers for one serving of something.  If, for example, we have eaten all the chicken I roasted, sometimes there will be one lonely serving of the vegetables that were roasted with the chicken left over.  I have often used odds and ends like this in a green salad for lunch (and will continue to do so on occasion)…but a grain bowl is much more substantial…and more along the lines of what I’m craving during the colder months. 

Last week I was in just this situation with a single serving of leftover roasted sweet potatoes and cauliflower (from my brown rice grain bowl)….  And since I had grain bowls on the brain, I made one from my lunch.  I cooked some quinoa (which only takes 25 minutes at most…bulgur would have been equally delicious, and even quicker), added a handful of arugula, some yogurt (always a good idea with grains, in my opinion) some julienned apple (crunchy, sweet and tart…and a perfect partner for cauliflower and sweet potato), the remains of my toasted and crushed pine nuts and then drizzled the whole thing with some of the last of my cumin-lime vinaigrette (but a mustard based vinaigrette would have been fine…or simply a good drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or lime to finish it off). I particularly liked the raw and fresh additions of the apple and arugula in this one (and should mention that I took the time to season and dress them with a little of the vinaigrette before adding them to the bowl).

I hope that these examples will give you some ideas for assembling your own grain bowls.  Obviously I made great use of one, particular vinaigrette (recipe below).  But even this is instructive in that getting into the habit of keeping favorite vinaigrettes and condiments on hand is a good way to get a jump on future grain bowls.  And don’t feel like you have to have a freshly cooked grain in order to have a grain bowl.  I was able to cook some quinoa for my lunch the other day because I was working from home.  But if you don’t have this luxury (and you would like to have grain bowls for lunch), get into the habit of always making a little extra whenever you cook a grain for your dinner.

I’ll end with a few miscellaneous pointers...things that I try to keep in mind when I’m putting together a grain bowl:  First, always think about contrasts—both in tasted and in texture.  You don’t want a big bowl of all the same flavor profiles or something that is all soft…or all crunchy.  Also, make sure everything goes together/makes sense…as always, less is more.  You’ll be much happier with your bowl if it has distinct tastes that complement each other well than you will be if you just have a big mish-mash of indistinguishable leftovers in a bowl.  If you have one of each of the elements (grain, vegetable, protein, fresh and/or crunchy/chewy garnish, sauce/condiment/vinaigrette) don’t add something else just because you have it.

Finally, keep your eyes open for inspiration.  When you have a grain bowl at a restaurant or café, make a point to note what it is that you like about it…the flavors, the textures, how it’s dressed, etc.  Whenever you have leftovers, think about how you might use them in a grain bowl.  And lastly, take inspiration from everywhere: images and recipes on line, in cookbooks or in a favorite magazine.  Pretty soon you’ll be making such delicious grain bowls at home that you won’t need to go out and pay someone else to make one for you.     

A few recipes/cooking notes for the grain bowls described in this post:

The Grains
I almost always cook grains using the pilaf method--that is, I start by toasting the grain in a bit of hot fat (usually olive oil...about two to three teaspoons per cup of raw grain) in the sauce pan and then after a minute or two adding a hot liquid (lightly salted water or stock).  When the whole thing comes to a rolling boil, cover with a tight lid and reduce the temperature to the lowest setting.  When the grain is tender, turn off the heat and let it continue to steam/rest for five to ten minutes.  The amount of liquid you will need and the cooking time will vary for each grain.  For Brown Rice you need 2 measures of liquid for each measure of rice.  It will take about 40 to 50 minutes to cook.  For quinoa and freekeh I use 1 1/4 to 1 1/3 measures of liquid for every measure of grain.  Quinoa takes 15 to 20 minutes and Freekeh takes 20 to 25 minutes.  Almost all grains benefit from a good rinse under running water before you cook them.  Quinoa must be rinsed or it will be bitter.

In the above bowls I didn't add any seasonings (other than salt) to the brown rice or quinoa.  For the freekeh, I used this favorite recipe (with onion, cinnamon and allspice).  I used brown basmati, white quinoa and cracked freekeh.  

I start with 1/4 cup of raw grain for each person.  You may require more...or less...but that's a good place to start.

Components of 2 grain bowls:  Cooked freekeh, roasted carrots, vinaigrette,
 harissa, cilantro, avocado and pine nuts (eggs not pictured...)

The Black Beans
I used 1/2 cup of cooked black beans for each portion.  You may use canned (be sure you rinse them) or cook your own.  I like to bake beans in a low oven, they require less attention and maintain a better shape.  Soak the beans overnight (or not...they'll just take longer to cook).  Drain and rinse the soaked beans and spread them in a layer no deeper than an inch in a shallow baking dish.  Drizzle with some olive oil, add a few cloves of garlic, several sprigs of thyme and a cinnamon stick.  Cover with boiling water by an inch, cover the pan with foil or a tight fitting lid, and bake at 325 degrees until soft but not falling apart...about 2 hours for black beans.  Add salt when the beans are half cooked.   1 cup of dried beans will make 3 cups of cooked.

Whether you use canned or cook your own, finish the beans by cooking some red onion in a little olive oil until tender and beginning to caramelize (use about 1/4 c. of diced onion for each half cup of cooked beans), adding the beans along with a splash of water or bean cooking liquid (you don't want them to be soup-y...but you don't want them to be dry either) and heating them through.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  (If you use canned beans, consider adding a little minced garlic and a dash of cinnamon to the onions just before adding the beans.)

Spice Roasted Sweet Potatoes & Cauliflower
If you aren't in the habit of roasting vegetables, check out my detailed tutorial.  For the vegetables in my brown rice bowl, I roasted a pound of sweet potatoes with 2/3 of a pound of cauliflower (and as mentioned in the text had extra...this was enough roasted vegetables for 3 or 4 grain bowls).  Peel the sweet potato and trim away the leaves and core from the cauliflower.  Cut the cauliflower into 1 1/2-inch florets.  Cut the sweet potatoes in slabs that are a generous half inch thick and cut the slabs into 1 1/2-inch pieces (so they are roughly the same size as the cauliflower florets).  Place them in a large bowl and add a teaspoon each of ginger and turmeric and a half teaspoon of coriander.  Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and season generously with salt.  Toss until the vegetables are evenly coated with the oil and spices.  If they look dry, add more oil.  Roast in a 450-degree oven (turning once when they are about 2/3 cooked) until tender to the tip of a knife and nicely caramelized...about 20 to 25 minutes.

Cumin-Lime Vinaigrette (Printable version)
Place 1/4 c. of freshly squeezed and strained lime juice in a small bowl.  Smash a fat clove of garlic to a purée with a pinch of salt and add it to the bowl.  Let sit for five to ten minutes (to allow the flavor of the garlic to mellow a bit).  Add a teaspoon of cumin and salt & pepper to taste.  Add 6 T. of olive oil in a thin stream while whisking constantly.  Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.   Drizzle as generously as you like over your grain bowl...and pass more at the table.  The vinaigrette will keep easily for a week or two in the fridge.  Bring to room temperature and re-whisk before using.

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