Grains are a miracle of both the ancient and modern world. People first began eating grains about 75,000 years ago in western Asia. These grains, including exotic sounding einkorn and emmer, were the precursors to today’s staple of wheat which, along with rice and corn, represents the most popular grains in the world and the most common of our time.
Grain is generally defined as the seed of grasses including oats, ride, wheat and corn. There are also other grains including rye, billet, barley and others. Grains are pretty important given that humans get an average of 48 percent of their calories from grains. What can I say, we humans love our carbs.
Grains are also great because generally speaking, they are inexpensive, last a long time and can be made into endless foods. They are also nutritious and easy to prepare making them a frugal cooks’ best friend.
It’s funny that grain bowls made such a trendy impact in the past few years because grain bowls have been around for many a century all over the ancient world. The ancient grain bowl called Buddha is fact, is a vegetarian meal, served on a single bowl or high-rimmed plate, filled with small portions of several foods, served cold. These may include whole grains such as quinoa or brown ride, and plant based proteins like chickpeas or tofu. The trend hit around 2013 and has been gaining in popularity since 2017. A non-vegetarian version would be a Nourish Bowls (non-vegetarian) or a Poke Bowl which includes Hawaiian raw fish.
We frugal types love a good grain bowl because they use up all those veggies and leftovers in the fridge. I like wheat bulgur as the base grain because it cooks up as quickly as rice but has a nutty, chewy taste and if fluffy and delicious. I store large bags of wheat bulgur in the freezer and simply take out what I need when the mood strikes me. You can cook up a cup of it to 2 and a 1/4 to 1/2 cups water in no time. I then let the cooked grain cool and freeze half of it, cooked and ready to thaw.
With the rest of it, I use my 2C/4S concept which means I add something crunchy and something creamy or cheesy. I also add something salty, spicy, savory and sweet. It is a formula that makes for the perfect bowl. Some ideas for that would include:
Creamy/cheesy: goat’s cheese or feta (which also stands in for salty)are my first choices. Avocado works great too.
Crunchy: Nuts of nearly any kind.
Salty: Olives are my number one choice but any pickled vegetable will do.
Savory: I like the crunch of carrots or the flavor of carnalized onions and a fresh herb of some kind.
Spicy: A sprinkle of red pepper flakes or even spoonful of diced hot peppers
Sweet: I tend to choose some form of dried or fresh fruit.
I then finish my bowl with a good squeeze of a sauce, flavored oil or some lemon juice to moisten everything up.
Some themes for this:
Mediterranean: Wheat bulgur, tomatoes, olives, small cubes of mozzarella cheese, chickpeas, chopped mint, red pepper flakes, basil, almonds, fresh lemon juice.
Indulgent: Wheat bulgur, olives, brie cheese, cashews, dried apricots, minced parsley, red pepper flakes, drizzle of herbal oil
South of the Border: Wheat bulgur, corn, crumbly Mexican cheese, pistachios, minced oregano, avocado, tomatoes, jalapenos, jicama, and if you like, a smattering of black beans topped with a big spoonful of salsa
All American: Wheat bulgur, diced fresh apples, cheddar cubes, walnuts, black olives, slivers of carrots, dried cranberries topped with drizzle of garlic oil (add a hard boiled egg if you like)
All Greek to We: Wheat bulgur, Greek olives, feta, tomatoes, chopped rosemary and mint, grilled eggplant, slices of sweet peppers, topped with a large dollop of Greek yogurt
Hawaiian I’m Not Lying: Wheat bulgur, pineapple bits, shredded coconut, chunks of lightly cooked sweet potato, avocado, roasted macadamia nuts, slivers of raw Maui onion, and goat cheese topped with an herbal oil or soy
Middle Eastern Made: Wheat bulgur (or couscous), hummus, chickpeas, sesame seeds, tomatoes, pickled turnips, yogurt, minced thyme, topped with a drizzle of tahini
Amazing Asian: Wheat bulgur (or rice if you want to get picky here), fresh bean sprouts, water chestnuts, slivers of carrots, mushrooms, candied bits of ginger or another dried fruit, bok choy, sliced green onions topped with soy sauce
These suggestions are just a starting point. Head to your refrigerator and vegetable crisper for more inspiration. Try and use up anything you think might be ready for the trash, it is important to use up what you have, not buy a ton of new condiments or one-use ingredients that will mostly spoil. Because many of the ingredients seem a bit costly, you only use a quarter cup here or there for things like nuts and cheese and bulk up on the cheap vegetables like carrots and chickpeas. If you like protein most leftovers will do from chicken to pork or sliced beef. I usually sliced up a hard boiled egg or add cubes of tofu and call it dinner. Getting a two for one is pretty easy for a grain bowl; as you make dinner prep a few extra ingredients that are already going in your dinner and use them to make a grain bowl for lunch tomorrow. Cheap, fast and nutritious. You can also use up leftover salad and side dishes by incorporating them into your grain bowls.
A frugal tip is to cook up a couple of cups of your grain of choice. I’ve been making farro and wheat bulgur recently because I love their chewy, nutty texture. You can then freeze the cooked grain until you need it. I divide the cooked grains into a couple of serving portions and then dive into my fridge to use up everything I can find. It is a cheap and tasty way to use up everything in your crisper. Try it soon!