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Choose main ingredient before you build a bowl

March 22, 2019

After a recent trip to the grocery store, I noticed my cupboard needed spring cleaning, or as my friend Marie likes to say, time to enforce the pantry reduction act. There was almost a cup of quinoa in a rubber-banded bag, a solo can of black beans and another of artichoke hearts. One lonely carrot languished in the crisper and the last 2 tomatoes needed attention.

My solution for these random ingredients - a grain bowl. You may have seen the various trendy names bloggers have given these: hippie bowls, macro bowls or power bowls to highlight the nutritional quality of their contents. One name for this approach to a meal came as a surprise to me: the Buddha bowl.

There are two different attributions for the name. The Urban Dictionary defines it as a bowl packed so full that it has a rounded belly appearance much like the belly of a buddha statue. Alternatively, historians have written about Buddha’s practice of waking before dawn each day and walking through the places he was staying, carrying his bowl. Local residents would place food in his bowl as a donation, and their gifts became his meals.

Whatever you choose to call it, there are a few things to consider as you approach the meal-in-a-bowl. Have you decided on an ingredient that will be your focal point? Will this be a vegetarian meal or will there be some meat, fish or chicken? Are you going for a specific culinary theme, e.g., Mexican or Oriental flavors? Once you’ve made those choices, you can decide whether the base of the bowl will be leafy greens or a cooked starch.

Green options include kale, lettuce, arugula, spinach or a combination of several. A standard list of sturdy starches range from quinoa and farro to rice, noodles and lentils. It’s helpful to then choose which direction your dressing will take to select the remaining ingredients. For example, a Mexican theme would bring in corn, black beans and avocado.

Your presentation of the contents of the bowl can be done one of two ways. The easiest approach is to simply toss everything together (see photo) while a more elegant plating would have each ingredient arranged in a separate pile around the edge of the bowl, showcasing the variety of colors and shapes.

Finally, you’ll want to balance the textures and flavors. The ideal combination will feature chewy, crunchy and creamy along with the traditional flavor map: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory (also called umami). Here’s where your dressing can help fill in some of the blanks, if necessary. They can be creamy or vinaigrette in style; whatever works to highlight the ingredients and theme.

As an example of how to build a bowl, consider one modeled after fish tacos. A base of saffron rice gives you salty and savory, lime-based dressing provides sour and bitter notes, a paprika and brown sugar glaze on the grilled fish delivers a sweet bite. For crunch, include a garnish of red cabbage, radish slices and tortilla chips to contrast with the creamy rice and flaky fish.

I’ve included recipes for two different bowls, both of which are endlessly adaptable to what you’d like to add. The one in the photo started with steamed quinoa as a base. Black beans, sliced tomatoes, shaved carrot and chopped artichoke hearts added color and texture. A bright vinaigrette completed the dish, balancing all the ingredients.

Quinoa Bowl

2/3 C quinoa
1 1/3 C vegetable broth
3 T olive oil
2 T apple cider vinegar
1 T lemon juice
1 t Dijon mustard
1 T honey
1 minced shallot
1 carrot
1 15 oz. can black beans
1 15 oz. can artichoke hearts
1 sliced tomato
salt and pepper, to taste
2 T chopped parsley

Combine the quinoa and broth in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high, then cover and reduce heat to very low. Cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. In a serving bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, honey and shallot. Peel and trim the carrot, then shave it into long ribbons into the bowl. Drain and rinse the black beans; add to the bowl. Drain and chop the artichoke hearts; add to the bowl. Add tomato and cooked quinoa to the bowl; toss to combine. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Yield: 2 to 3 servings.

Asian Bowl with Peanut Sauce

1 C jasmine rice
1 3/4 C water
1/4 t salt
1 t sesame oil
1/4 C vegetable broth
2 C broccoli florets
1 C defrosted shelled edamame
1 C grated carrot
1/3 C peanut butter
1 grated garlic clove
1 T maple syrup
4 T soy sauce
2 T rice wine vinegar
2 T fresh lime juice
1/3 C water

Combine rice, water and salt in a saucepan; bring to a boil over high. Cover and reduce heat to low; cook until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. In a large skillet, combine sesame oil, broth, broccoli, edamame and carrot. Cook over medium, shaking frequently until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. In a serving bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients until completely smooth. Add rice and vegetables to the bowl and toss to combine. Yield: 4 servings.