The versatile glory of grain bowls

The Mediterranean Chicken Bowl, as prepared by Ryan Bollock, chef de cuisine at Joya Kitchen in La Jolla, is a dish that can also be re-created at home.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joya Kitchen chef breaks down components of this trending dish with a global history and a world of options

Where in the world did grain bowls come from? We see them everywhere now, but a meal in a bowl, sometimes called a “Buddha Bowl,” has a lofty history. The Buddha part, according to Epicurious, goes back to stories that the Buddha carried his bowl as he traveled, with locals placing food in it as a donation.

Today, these can refer to vegetarian and vegan bowls, but grain bowls are a global tradition. There’s Korean bibimbap, bowls of warm white rice topped with assorted fresh, marinated and sauteed vegetables with meat. There’s congee in China, arroz de marisco in Portugal, and grains like fonio are the foundation of bowls in West African countries.

In the U.S., you know grain bowls have slid into mainstream culture when the big restaurant chains have them on their menus. Once a staple of health food restaurants, then trendy chef-driven restaurants in the last decade, eateries from Olive Garden and Taco Bell to Chipotle and Panera serve them. And why not? They’re inventive, they’re casual, they’re adaptable and they’re easy to eat.

Which is precisely why you should really customize your own, at home. A delicious, filling and healthy bowl can be as simple or as sophisticated as you like — filled with random leftovers or crafted with your own blend of whole grains topped by greens, proteins and a delightful sauce. They’re a way to incorporate global flavors. And they’re a painless way to provide choices to finicky eaters.

Even breakfast is bowl-worthy. A breakfast bowl can be savory, with hearty bulgur simmered in milk with your favorite cheese grated and stirred in, then topped with wilted spinach, a poached egg and salsa. It can be on the sweet side, featuring quinoa mixed with maple syrup or brown sugar and cinnamon, and topped with fresh berries, toasted nuts and a dollop of creamy yogurt. Really, if you’re making oatmeal, you already have the foundation for a bowl.


Chef de cuisine Ryan Bullock prepares a Green Goddess Bowl at Joya Kitchen. He points out that one benefit of making bowls for a family meal is that you can easily batch the ingredients, so you could take just a bit more time to make enough for two or three nights.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For lunch or dinner, the options are nearly endless. We got input on how to create sumptuous whole grain bowls from Ryan Bullock, chef de cuisine of the new Joya Kitchen in La Jolla, a 4,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor dining space with a menu focused on organic, farm-fresh items.

Bullock explained his theory on the popularity of bowls and why Joya serves them.

“For us, a bowl is an easy choice because it’s quick and it’s easy. There’s not a lot of moving pieces, so you can have a really complex dish that’s also easy to deliver and easy to eat, especially while you’re working. We focus a lot on sandwiches and other handhelds, but a bowl is good because you don’t need to use a knife and fork.”

Joya Kitchen focuses a lot on brown rice and grains, trying to get complete proteins by using beans, especially in vegetarian dishes. Bullock pointed out that one benefit of making bowls for a family meal is that you can easily batch the ingredients, so the amount of time that it takes to make a meal for one night can actually take just a bit more time to make enough for two or three nights. Yep, time management and efficiency — that’s the beauty of bowls.

Bowl basics are pretty straightforward. You pick a grain — it could be brown rice, but it could also be protein-rich grains like quinoa, couscous, barley, wheat berries and freekeh. Use them individually or mix them up. Cook the grains in water or broth. Add fresh seasonal vegetables, from greens to sturdier stuff like broccoli, asparagus or cucumbers that can be served raw, steamed, sauteed, roasted or stir-fried. Add beans, nuts, tofu or animal protein — or not — then top with a sauce or dressing.

As for how to balance the quantity of each component for an individual bowl, Bullock advises 1 cup of the grains, 1 cup of the vegetables, 6 to 8 ounces of protein, and 2 to 3 ounces of the sauce or dressing. Typically, he creates a composed bowl, with the grains mounded at the bottom of the bowl and each component along the edge, encircling them.

For example, Bullock makes his Green Goddess vegetarian bowl and his Mediterranean Chicken Bowl using a mix of braised ancient grains, such as farro, barley, black barley and sorghum, as the foundation, and roasted vegetables and confit tomatoes as two of the components. For a family, you could make large batches of the grains, the roasted veggies and the tomato confit. Use some for one night for one type of bowl and use the rest later in the week for another. Or use any of them for a totally different type of dish. With the Green Goddess bowl, you’ll use those three components, along with a quartered and grilled avocado, dipped in white and black sesame seeds, then topped with a rich Green Goddess dressing bursting with fresh herbs.

Bullock arranges roasted vegetables and confit tomatoes around the Green Goddess Bowl, which will be topped with grilled avocado dipped in sesame seeds, then the namesake dressing.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Mediterranean Chicken Bowl employs the same braised ancient grains and confit tomatoes, along with garbanzo beans, sliced cucumbers and luscious marinated feta. For protein, add tender slices of chicken thigh that had been marinated in a spicy harissa sauce (a North African red pepper sauce) and then grilled. He tops the bowl with a romesco sauce made with tomatoes, red bell pepper, garlic, almonds and bread. Have leftovers of any of the components? You’ll have ready-made ingredients for yet another dish.

Remember those roasted veggies from the Green Goddess Bowl? Use the rest in Bullock’s Shrimp Curry Bowl. This time, make a batch of brown rice, following the directions on the package. You’ll grill fresh jumbo shrimp and make a luxurious yellow curry sauce. Then top it all off with toasted, chopped cashews and cilantro leaves. Each bite will be a different flavor and texture.

Bullock uses a blend of canola oil and olive oil in a 3:1 ratio to saute vegetables, marinate the shrimp, add to the confit tomatoes and marinated feta, and add to the yellow curry and romesco sauces. Make a batch of 2 cups — 1 ½ cups of the canola and a ½ cup of the olive oil — and store it in a squeeze bottle to make it easier to measure out while cooking. The blended oil takes advantage of vegetable oil’s high smoke point (and lower cost) and olive oil’s flavor and nutrition.

And remember, while bowls can be delicious with random ingredients, including leftovers, the best ones combine the right balance of flavors and textures and the right variety of grains, vegetables, proteins and sauces. Don’t overpower a delicate fish with a brash sauce and heavy grains. Rice, greens and a light dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce and ginger would help that fish pop. Give your mouth the heft and chew of wheat berries to complement spicy slices of pork or beef and crunchy vegetables.


Bullock uses a blend of canola and olive oil in a 3:1 ratio. To simplify measurements, make up a larger blend — for example, 1 ½ cups canola and ½ cup olive oil — and measure out from that.

The Green Goddess Bowl, which is vegetarian, includes ancient grains, roasted vegetables, cherry tomatoes, avocado and dressing.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Green Goddess Bowl

Makes 4 servings

4 cups braised ancient grains (see recipe below)
4 cups roasted vegetables of your choice (see recipe below)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved or confit (see recipe below), room temperature
1 avocado, quartered, grilled, peeled and lightly dipped in sesame seeds
2 cups Green Goddess dressing (see recipe below)

To assemble the Green Goddess Bowls: Mound 1 cup of grains in center of each bowl and arrange vegetables around them. Top the grains with the avocado slice. Drizzle about 3 ounces of dressing over each of the 4 bowls.

The Mediterranean Chicken Bowl
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mediterranean Chicken Bowl

Makes 4 servings

4 cups braised ancient grains (see recipe below)
1 cup garbanzo beans
1 cup cucumber, sliced thin on a bias
1 cup crumbled or marinated feta (see recipe below)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved or confit (see recipe below)
2 cups romesco sauce (see recipe below)
8 grilled or roasted chicken thighs (see recipe below)

To assemble the Mediterranean Chicken Bowls: Mound 1 cup of grains in center of each bowl. Arrange individual components — the garbanzo beans, cucumber slices, feta, confit tomatoes and slices of 2 chicken thighs — around the grains. Drizzle about 3 ounces of romesco sauce over the chicken in each of the 4 bowls.

The Shrimp Curry Bowl has brown rice, roasted vegetables, jumbo shrimp, cashews and a yellow curry sauce.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Shrimp Curry Bowl

Makes 4 servings

4 cups cooked brown rice (follow directions on package)
4 cups roasted vegetables of your choice (see recipe below)
2 cups yellow curry sauce (see recipe below)
3 dozen fresh jumbo shrimp, without tail, and peeled and deveined
½ cup cashews, toasted and chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

To assemble the Shrimp Curry Bowls: Mound 1 cup of rice in center of each bowl. Arrange the roasted vegetables and shrimp — 9 each — around the rice. Drizzle about 3 ounces of yellow curry sauce over the shrimp in each of the 4 bowls and then sprinkle with toasted cashews and cilantro.


Braised ancient grains

Makes 4 cups

2 tablespoons blended oil
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon shallot, finely diced
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
½ cup farro
½ cup barley
½ cup black barley
½ cup sorghum
1 quart water, seasoned with salt and pepper

Bring water to a boil and set aside.

Heat a large skillet and add oil. Add garlic and shallots and sweat at medium/low heat until cooked through. Add herbs and sweat a minute more.

Add grains. Saute 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper.

Add water 1 cup at a time while frequently stirring with a wooden spoon, until grains are fully cooked. Adjust seasoning as needed. Set aside.

Roasted vegetables

4 cups total vegetables, such as asparagus, broccolini, cherry tomatoes, or whatever is in season, chopped into bite-size pieces
¼ cup blended oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven 500 degrees. Add vegetables to a large bowl, along with oil, salt and pepper. Stir together until well mixed, then place on sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

Roast for 15 minutes. Set aside.

Confit tomatoes

Makes 2 cups

1 pint heirloom cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
1 arbol chile

2 cups blended oil

Combine all ingredients in a small pot. Bring oil temperature up to 200 degrees over low/medium heat.

Remove from heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Set aside and store unused mixture in glass jar in the refrigerator.

Green Goddess dressing

Makes 2 cups

1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ cup chives, chopped
¼ cup parsley, chopped
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
¼ cup basil, chopped
¼ avocado, diced
Salt and black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. If the consistency is too thick, add more lemon or buttermilk. If it’s too thin, whisk in more mayonnaise or sour cream.

Leftover dressing can be refrigerated for about 5 days.

Marinated feta

Makes 2 cups

Zest from ¼ orange
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon Aleppo chile (or chile flakes)
1 cup olive oil
1 cup feta, cut into 1-inch cubes (see Prep note)

Place orange zest, garlic, bay leaf, chiles and oil in a bowl. Add feta cubes and mix lightly. Use a bit more oil if needed to ensure feta is covered.

Prep note: Use hot water bath to hold knife in between cutting feta. Wipe knife clean with a towel to ensure your cuts are clean.

Move mixture into an airtight container. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Chicken thighs

Makes 4 servings

½ cup store-bought harissa paste (available at Trader Joe’s, World Market and at
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ cup blended oil
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs

Combine harissa with red wine vinegar and blended oil. Place chicken in a sealable plastic bag and add marinade. Let out air and seal, then rub the chicken around to make sure all of the chicken pieces are coated. Marinate in refrigerator at least 2 hours.

Shake marinade off chicken and grill or roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes until the internal temperature measures 165 degrees. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then slice. Set aside.

Romesco sauce

Makes 2 cups

2 Roma tomatoes, cut in half
½ red bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
¼ cup almonds, whole
½ cup sourdough bread or other white bread, torn into 1- to 2-inch pieces
½ cup blended oil, divided use
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 450 to 475 degrees.

Place tomatoes, pepper, garlic, almonds and bread on a sheet tray. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of blended oil and season with salt and pepper.

Roast for 15 to 20 minutes until the ingredients have a good char. Remove from oven and put in a blender. Add vinegar, blend for a few moments, slowly adding the remainder of the oil to emulsify the sauce.

Add a touch of water if sauce gets too thick or begins to separate. Adjust seasonings as needed. Sauce should be blended completely smooth. Leftover sauce can be refrigerated for 5 days.


Toss the shrimp in blended oil and saute or grill until they turn pink. Remove from heat and set aside.

Yellow curry sauce

Makes 2 cups

2 teaspoons blended oil
¼ cup yellow onion, small dice
1 garlic clove, smashed
¼ cup carrot, peeled, small dice
1 teaspoon ginger, pureed
1 teaspoon lemongrass, pureed
1 makrut lime leaf
2 tablespoons yellow curry paste (available at most grocery stores and Specialty Produce)
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup vegetable stock, chicken stock or water

Heat a large skillet over medium low heat. Add oil. Then add onion, garlic and carrot and saute until tender. Add ginger, lemongrass and curry paste and saute a minute or two more to bloom. Add makrut lime leaf, coconut milk and stock.

Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes to thicken. Continue reducing if thicker sauce is desired.

Pour into a blender and blend until smooth. For a smoother sauce, strain through a fine mesh strainer.

Leftover sauce can be refrigerated for about 5 days.

Recipes from Ryan Bullock.

Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.