please demystify bowls for me
March 14, 2023 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I’m a vegetarian who enjoys noodle bowls, quinoa bowls, rice bowls, and salads (basically put a bunch of stuff together on top of a base), but find myself quite confused by how to construct them. Please help!

I enjoy bowls as a healthy, tasty, and adaptable lunch or dinner option. However, I’m generally a recipe-follower, and though I’ve attempted to put together bowls in the past, I often end up attempting recipes where I’m lacking a few ingredients and then end up frustrated because the result seems to be not great without those extra ingredients. Ideally, I would like to build intuition around constructing bowls so that I can look at my fridge, put together a reasonably tasty bowl without needing to buy groceries (running out to the store for one or two ingredients is fine).

My criteria for a good bowl are:
- lots of vegetables
- a good source of vegetarian protein (I like eggs, chickpeas, black beans, butter beans, soyrizo, and tofu though I’m still learning how to properly cook tofu)
- a good sauce or dressing (this is often where I get most confused!! how to sauce???)
- keeps well in the fridge

I enjoy eating food across lots of cuisines including Indian food, Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Thai, Italian, and Mexican food.

How do you pick the right combination of vegetables and sauce/dressing and protein for a bowl?
posted by cruel summer to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Great timing. I just read this article from Serious Eats a couple hours ago.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2023 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Try and think of the taste/flavor elements that you like in a bowl - personally I like a bowl that contains at least, say, three or four of the following:
- creaminess (e.g. an over-easy egg, creamy miso-sesame dressing, sour cream or yogurt (dairy or nondairy))
- acid/brightness (e.g. chogochujang, salsa, citrus juice, tomatoes)
- vegetable crunch (e.g. carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage inc. kimchi)
- "dry" crunch (e.g. nuts, seeds, croutons)
- umami (e.g. miso-sesame dressing, mushrooms, meat substitutes, kale braised with soy sauce, roasted tomatoes)
- "meaty" or chewy texture (e.g. mushrooms, tofu, other meat subs, wild rice, wheat berries)
- warm stuff

If you're mostly following a recipe and omitting an ingredient, think about what it's doing in the bowl, whether that's something you're going to miss, and what else you could sub for it. Like, one of my favorite bowl recipes calls for roasted sunflower seeds, but I've subbed in other nuts or even chips or pretzels and that's pretty good too. It also calls for beets, and honestly I usually just skip the beets because I don't find that I miss them - they add some sweetness and crunch but the lettuce is crunchy too.

OK on preview the Serious Eats article linked above expresses this all much better than I do!
posted by mskyle at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The sauce is in fact the tough part, imo! Not to make, I mean, but in terms of remembering to have all the stuff on hand for making a variety of them. Just based on some of the "bowls" I've gotten from my meal kit service that I've really enjoyed, the sauces/dressings I liked best were: black bean sauce or chili black bean sauce, gochujang, tzatziki, hoisin (specifically hoisin glazed baked tofu), assorted mayos (i.e. mayo doctored with a little extra something: lime juice, sriracha, chipotle paste, gochujang, etc.), and white miso paste (which can really punch up the flavor on your veggies). I think this gives you a good idea of the kinds of condiments/staples you can keep on hand to whip up a quick tasty sauce/dressing for any given bowl: creamy "bases" for a sauce like yogurt or mayo, something spicy, a few pre-prepared staples, plus some things that will do for that pinch of acid (lemon, lime, vinegars of your choice).

When it comes to how to sauce/dress, most of these I think you can just kind of drizzle over the top or plop on the side and it'll get incorporated in as you eat. I will say that a gamechanger for me when it comes to tofu has been to bake it, then toss it in a really flavorful sauce/glaze like the above mentioned chili black bean sauce or hoisin sauce. If you're constructing your own sauce/glaze for the tofu, the general formula I like is something sweet (this will usually be honey) + something spicy (gochujang, sambal oelek, etc) + something acid (vinegar). You can also toss the tofu in salt, pepper, and some additional spices before you toss in the sauce (a chili powder, for example, or togarashi or whatever).

As far as right combination of ingredients, I like how my meal kit service sends me bowls that go by type of cuisine. So like, a Mexican-inspired bowl where the contents are brown rice, black beans, corn, sweet potato, some bell peppers, seasoned with chili powder and maybe some ancho chile paste in the beans, plus guac and/or sour cream for a dressing.

I guess I'd say how you construct your bowls though will depend on your starting point: do you look in your fridge and pantry and think "hmm, what kind of bowl do I want?" or do you set out to shop with "I'm in the mood for a lot of Korean inspired food this week"?
posted by yasaman at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have an air fryer, that's the cheat to easy, good tofu that will go well in bowls. They also do a good job for crispy chickpeas.

One of the big things for me with bowl meals is the crunch texture, mentioned by mskyle, and crispy tofu or crunchy chickpeas helps with that for me.
posted by Candleman at 10:56 AM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

I think most sauces can be good on anything, it's just whatever sounds good to you. You can experiment by saucing just one spoonful of something first, and if you don't like the combo, just put the rest of that sauce in the fridge for another use. Some easy to make sauces I love:

Sweet Peanut Sauce: combine one big spoon each of peanut butter, soy sauce, and honey. Microwave it for 30 secs to melt the peanut butter, then stir well. You can also add sesame oil.

Soy sauce + Sesame Oil

Soy sauce + Hot Sauce (I like Sambal Olek hot chili paste, but anything will do, even Frank's)

Mayonnaise + Gochujang (Korean Chili Paste, I buy it in a squirt bottle) - I do about 3 parts mayo to 1 part gochujang, which has the flavour but keeps the spiciness mild

Home Aioli: Mayonnaise + a little minced garlic + salt (optional, and delicious: add honey)

Chimichurri (like tangy pesto) - Blend flat-leaf parsley, vinegar, garlic, salt, and oil

Onion Dip: Sour cream with French Onion Soup powder, amazing with raw veggies

Chinese Ginger-Scallion sauce - Blend ginger and scallion to chop finely, add a ton of salt, and pour hot oil over it. It keeps in the fridge for a week or so. DEELISHUS.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:57 AM on March 14, 2023 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I often put together a 'base' of a grain/starch, sauce, and protein. To this I add fresh greens and/or steamed/roasted veggies. Plus a little more sauce.

So like brown rice, peanut sauce, and cubes of baked tofu - and then to that I'll add fresh arugula, or steamed broccoli, or roasted cauliflower, plus minced herbs, etc. etc.

The idea is the base stays the same for several meals while the toppings are added as they happen ("oh I need to use up this half a pepper")
posted by niicholas at 10:57 AM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: I'm going to answer a very narrow part of your question: I’m still learning how to properly cook tofu. You may find my two tofu hacks helpful.
posted by grobstein at 11:33 AM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may want to start out using actual recipes until you develop that intuition of what you like and can mix and match your own ingredients based on the ratios you prefer.

I encourage using mayo and ketchup to augment sauces, they already taste good and adding other flavors to these existing sauces ups your sauce game.

Blue Apron is known for good recipes and easy steps. Here are few to get started with some options on switching it up. Each recipe makes 2 servings.

Roasted Vegetable Grain Bowl
switch it up - rice for farro, other veg, other cheese, other beans, mayo or sour cream for yogurt, a different spice blend, lemon for vinegar

Pesto Rice and Veggie Bowl
switch it up - spinach for kale, avocado for egg, add beans or beans instead of rice, change the cheese, lemon zest/juice for pickled lemon puree, oil and other herb for pesto

Chirashi-Style Rice Bowls
switch it up - don't batter the mushrooms before cooking, switch the veg to whatever is in season, buy an asian-style sauce instead of making it

Spicy Chipotle Tofu and Rice Bowl
switch it up - add onion and jalapeno to the tomato, add or switch the rice to beans, use a thick smoky salsa instead of making your own tofu sauce (though the leftovers from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and a can of tomato paste can be frozen in cubes or flat in a ziploc and are very tasty), use sour cream instead of yogurt
This is a great method for cooking tofu with any sauce, try adding lots of zested lime and ginger.

There are so many other Blue Apron bowl recipes including those with meat where you can sub in tofu or beans or eggs for the protein.
posted by RoadScholar at 11:42 AM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

I see the biggest opportunity with bowls as the seasoning - there needs to be enough salt and fat and a bit of acid and maybe crunch. Most people when learning to cook do not use enough salt and fat especially in the sauce. Each component of the bowl should taste good on its own to really maximize flavor.
posted by RoadScholar at 11:44 AM on March 14, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I find that it helps if you think of it as a deconstructed version of something, like how a burrito bowl is a deconstructed burrito, so you just put the stuff you would in a burrito in a bowl on top of rice.

Once you have that idea in your head, you can make anything a "bowl" just by taking the components of dishes you love and remixing them. Love a Thai salad roll (some people call them "fresh rolls" - the ones in the fresh rice paper wraps)? Great! Make that a bowl by putting those elements on rice or noodles: cooked prawns (or chicken or marinated tofu), cilantro and/or thai basil (or mint if that's what you have), shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, bell pepper slices, maybe some cabbage, etc. I put those artfully arranged in a circle on top of my carb item. Now, what would you dip your salad roll in? Peanut sauce? Great, that's now your rice bowl sauce. You could also use an adjacent sauce, like a thai-style dipping sauce, but basically you want to keep it on-theme and it'll work out great.

I went through a huge quinoa bowl phase last summer and spent the entire time riffing on deconstructed versions of other dishes - I made a big list of ideas. I would buy the ingredients for the weekly bowl and do some basic prep on the weekend, then have all my ingredients in the fridge ready for assembly. It was a delicious, delicious summer.

As others have said, it's really the sauce/dressing that ties it all together. Canned fish is a great clinch hitter for a cheap protein that goes with a lot of other toppings.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:05 PM on March 14, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Another thing I'd recommend is keeping some veggies prepped in your fridge, some carrots, peppers, maybe cabbage/spinach already sliced for either stir frying quickly, or using raw. It makes it much, much easier to impulsively build a bowl than to think about having to do all the prep work. Onions, scallions, and garlic are all better sliced right before using.
posted by drossdragon at 1:13 PM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: I don't really like plain rice, but I love rice with lots of kimchi, sometimes a bit of oil. Several local Asian markets have homemade kimchi at a great price.
I noticed a few days ago that a local Asian market sells homemade fried tofu, a delicious protein, easy to add to a rice bowl.
Indian meals in packets over rice are easy, tasty, nutritious, cheap.
I love to revisit the green bean Ask.Me. Dry-fried green beans with a simple but spicy stir-fry sauce over rice are a favorite.
I just finished the last of a batch of fried rice with lots of veg. and some scrambled eggs, topped with leftover Asian takeout with a Korean-style sauce.
I recommend cabbage. Raw, fried, roasted; it's tasty, nutritious and keeps well, so you can easily make a rice bowl when the veg drawer is emptied out.
posted by theora55 at 1:23 PM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: Lots of great advice here already. Just wanted to add that there is an entire section devoted to precisely this issue in The Vegan Family Cookbook. It includes not only an ode to the deliciousness of a good veggie bowl, but also a good breakdown of what makes good bowls good, and (most importantly) a whole bunch of good and extremely easy recipes for various different elements (proteins, sauces, veggies, and toppings), and then (and this is the best part) an extremely handy dandy visual matrix for constructing delicious bowls from various combinations of those elements. It's great and super useful for me, who has much the same problem you do (and the same love of a good bowl!!)

I will say, though, that the recipes in this book are what I personally would consider to be quite basic/foundational (rather than exciting, or unusual, or inventive, or challenging). This makes this section of the book really useful as a great jumping off point, and a great nudge to help get you thinking about what the right combination of elements are to make yummy bowls, but it's not exactly a thrilling culinary adventure for a serious cook (the author has geared the book towards families with young kids, so I'd say the flavour profiles of her recipes are a bit on the conservative side). Just lots of practical, versatile recipes that (in my opinion) have quite a bit of room for further experimentation once you're feeling the bowl vibe more intuitively.

(I currently have this book on loan from my library, but am getting enough use out of this bowl section in particular that I'll probably buy a copy of my own)
posted by Dorinda at 1:30 PM on March 14, 2023 [2 favorites]

I use an app/website called Mealime that's been a lifesaver, recipe-wise. Loads of variety (a *tonne* of veggie bowl dishes) and step-by-step instructions on how to cook them. The first few weeks were a bit expensive as I acquired the bottles of fish sauce and red wine vinegar and whatnot, but now I make lots of different, tasty, saucy bowl dishes quite regularly.
posted by unlapsing at 2:49 PM on March 14, 2023

Sauce: there are no rules!! Sauce can be literally anything, or nothing.

Often I'll make a nice batch of quinoa or couscous or brown rice using stock (liquid or powder-- Marigold is my secret weapon here); and that will taste good enough that once I've added a selection of Things, sauce would only obfuscate the flavours.

Today I made a Mediterranean quinoa bowl: olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, avocado. I did add sauce in this case: pesto. But I could just as easily have left it sauceless, with just a bit of olive oil and maybe some balsamic vinegar on the avocado. A drizzle of good oil-- olive or sesame or pumpkin seed or whatever fits your flavour profile best-- goes a long way.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:43 PM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: I really like the saucy vegetarian cookbook. It not only has lots of great sauce recipes with suggestions of what to eat the sauce on, but also teaches the basics of coming up with your own sauce recipe, the different types of sauces, and the important components of each, like acid, salt, fat, sweetener, etc.

I find I can make a couple sauces on the weekend and just cook up misc veggies through the week, put them in a bowl with a grain and a protein and we are good to go.

Most recently I did a teriyaki sauce and a creamy miso nut based sauce (inspired by the book but adapted for what I had on hand) and my partner loved both. Specifically requested we make both both again.
posted by CleverClover at 5:43 PM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I purchased Build-a-Bowl: 77 Satisfying & Nutritious Combos: Whole Grain + Vegetable + Protein + Sauce = Meal and have made several tasty recipes from it.
posted by Juniper Toast at 6:07 PM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: Do you like tahini? I’m obsessed with this dressing on veggie bowls. I skip the coconut aminos and add a dash of soy sauce. Throwing in a little nutritional yeast can make it even more umami.
posted by vanitas at 6:58 PM on March 14, 2023

Don’t forget to add crunch - sunflower seeds or those dry noodles or fried onion from a can.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:13 PM on March 14, 2023

I'm on a diet atm where I need to eat a teaspoon of vege oil, some salt, 2 cups of non-starch veges (which it turns out pretty much means salad greens, brassicas, peppers, or carrots), and 63g of (pre-cooked) chicken breast (i.e fat, salt, vitamins & protein).

My current favourite method is chop it all up into chunks and throw the lot in a pan set to hot with a random prepackaged spice blend - tonight's was "Morrocan seasoning". Mixing occasionally until it's hot and browned a bit.

I'll usually soften brocolli/cauliflower/carrots first with 10min in the microwave but otherwise this has worked wonderfully for everything from spinach & silverbeet to onions & mushrooms.

Doesn't work for cucumber.
posted by gible at 11:07 PM on March 14, 2023

Best answer: Don't forget fun toppings: something sweet (dried cranberries, caramelized roasted veggies, something crunchy (toasted slivered or sliced almonds, other nuts, roasted sunflower seeds, sesame seeds), something creamy (crumbled feta or goat cheese, shredded cheese, dressing), something tangy (squeeze of lemon or lime juice, dressing, marinated artichokes, roasted red peppers, olives). Not necessarily altogether.
posted by at 5:25 PM on March 15, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a fan of "use a recipe until it becomes second nature." If that approach works for you, the book Show up for Salad is entirely bowl-component recipes with suggestions for how to combine them. ("Salad" here also includes grain and noodle salads.)

My lazy bowl trick is that I will eat anything with chili crisp. Leftover rice + chili crisp + literally whatever is leftover in my fridge is one of my go-tos. Also avocado--everything is better with avocado on top.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:16 AM on March 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

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