3 vibrant grain bowl recipes to make light work of lunchtime meals

Posted by for Food

Fresh, filling and packed with flavour, grain bowls are a great way to get creative at lunchtime. Not sure where to begin? Get inspired by Nina Olsson’s delicious recipes.

There’s much to love about summer, from picnics in the park to easy throw-on dresses. But when the clock strikes 1pm, we find ourselves presented with the same daily dilemma: what are we going to have for lunch?

Whether you’re working from home or making a packed lunch to take to the office, salads are a natural go-to when the mercury rises – but it can get mightily dull making the same thing every day. Happily, there are plenty of easy-to-prep lunchtime recipes out there to pull you out of your midday mealtime rut, from zingy noodle salads and posh sandwiches to crisp savoury tarts

Looking for another light, bright lunch that walks the line between fresh and filling? We suggest adding grain bowls to your repertoire. Whether you follow a plant-based diet or simply fancy weaving a few more vegetables into your meals, these colourful, layered dishes deliver on flavour, vibrancy and substance.

Even better, wholegrains and fresh greens – the core ingredients of grain bowls – are packed full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. And if you’re feeling really organised, you can prep your bowls the day before, allowing you to maximise your time in the sun on your lunch break.

Below, we’ve three delicious grain bowl recipes that are ideal for a speedy weekday meal, courtesy of Nina Olsson’s new cookbook Bowls of Goodness: Grains + Greens: Nutritious + Climate Smart Recipes for Meat-free Meals.

Olsson’s lentil and bulgur kofte bowl remixes Turkish kofte balls with wholegrains, alongside a colourful bed of roasted vegetables, sweet potato and fresh green leaves.

Her dragon bowl, meanwhile, takes inspiration from the retro grain bowls of the 70s with a traditional mix of vegetables, grains and legumes – albeit with the addition of seaweed and a soy-based dressing for a contemporary nod to Japanese cuisine.

Lastly, Olsson’s green infusion bowl is a supercharged mix of vegetables (think broccoli, avocado and green peas) with panko breadbrumbs for extra bite.

Make-ahead lunches never looked so good…

  • Lentil and bulgur kofte bowl

    Grain bowls: Nina Olsson’s lentil and bulgur kofte bowl

    Nina says: “These Turkish lentil and bulgur kofte balls are packed with herbs and spring onions, in a delicious union of flavours and textures. I serve them with roasted vegetables and tender green salad leaves. Drizzle with garlic sauce and enjoy!”

    Serves 4

    Ingredients

    • 1 cauliflower head, chopped
    • 1 large sweet potato, cut into wedges
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 2 handfuls of delicate salad greens (I use baby swiss chard)
    • 10cm (4in) piece of cucumber, sliced
    • a handful of chopped fresh herbs, such as coriander, parsley or/and mint
    • 4 tomatoes, chopped
    • a handful of pumpkin seeds
    • hot chilli sauce or red chilli flakes

    For the kofte balls:

    • 100g split red lentils
    • 50g bulgur
    • 300ml vegetable stock
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 shallot, finely diced
    • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
    • 1 teaspoon cumin
    • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
    • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
    • 1 roasted sweet red pepper (I use store bought)
    • ¼ teaspoon chilli flakes, or to taste
    • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
    • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
    • salt, to taste

    For the yogurt garlic dressing:

    • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
    • 150ml plant-based or dairy natural yogurt
    • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
    • ½ teaspoon agave syrup
    • ¾ teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

    Method

    Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F), Gas Mark 4, and line an oven tray with baking paper. Toss the caulifower and sweet potato in a bowl with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 20 minutes, turning the vegetables after 10 minutes.

    Meanwhile, cook the lentils and bulgur in the vegetable stock on a medium-high heat for 18–20 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

    Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the shallot and spring onions for 2 minutes while stirring. Add the cumin, black pepper, tomato purée, roasted pepper and chilli flakes. Fry for another 2 minutes.

    Mix the lentils and bulgur with the shallot and spice mixture. Add the parsley and extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt. Wet your hands and form the mixture into small walnut-sized balls. Set aside.

    Blend all the yogurt garlic dressing ingredients together into a smooth sauce.

    Divide the green salad leaves, cucumber, cauliflower, sweet potato, kofte balls, chopped herbs and tomatoes between bowls. Drizzle with the garlic dressing and top with pumpkin seeds. For a hot kick, add a drizzle of hot chilli sauce or sprinkles of red chilli flakes for extra heat.

  • Dragon bowl

    Grain bowls: Nina Olsson's dragon bowl

    Nina says: “Around since the 1970s, dragon bowls were one of the original veggie bowls, together with buddha bowls. Dragon bowls popped up at a time when macrobiotic philosophy was fashionable with vegetarians. 

    Making a dragon bowl is more about attitude than sticking to a set of specific ingredients. It’s about putting together whatever seasonal legumes, grains and veggies you have at home. My dragon bowl is crowned with shredded nori to stay on theme. So far, all the dragon bowls I’ve tasted on my travels have been topped with a seaweed and served with a soy-based dressing, a nod to the birth country of macrobiotics: Japan.

    This dragon bowl has a mix of flavours that complement each other well: curried cauliflower, beetroot dip, sautéed kale and wholegrain rice.”

    Serves 4

    Ingredients

    • 200g brown, red or black rice (or a mix of them all)
    • 2 carrots, grated
    • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds
    • ¼ sheet nori, cut into thin strips

    For the curried cauliflower:

    • 1 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
    • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
    • ½ teaspoon garam masala
    • ⅓ teaspoon chilli powder, or to taste
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 small cauliflower head, chopped into chunks

    For the beetroot dip:

    • 2 medium beetroot, trimmed and greens reserved for frying with the kale
    • 70g cannellini beans
    • ½ teaspoon tahini
    • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

    For the tamari and almond dressing:

    • 2 tablespoons shoyu or tamari
    • 1 garlic clove, crushed
    • ½ teaspoon grated fresh root ginger
    • 1 tablespoon almond or cashew butter
    • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
    • 1 tablespoon water
    • 1 tablespoon agave syrup
    • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

    For the sauteed kale:

    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon red or brown miso paste
    • 70g kale, hard stems removed, chopped
    • 2 pinches of shichimi togarashi or red chilli flakes

    Method

    Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F), Gas Mark 6, and line a baking tray with baking paper. Cook the rice according to the packet instructions.

    Make the curried cauliflower and beetroot dip. Mix the salt, the turmeric, garam masala and chilli powder with the olive oil in a bowl. Add the chopped cauliflower and toss to coat. Arrange on the baking tray. Place the beetroot in a separate small ovenproof dish (so that it doesn’t discolour the cauliflower) and place it on the tray.

    Bake for 25 minutes, turning the cauliflower and the beetroot after 15 minutes.

    Blend the dressing ingredients together to make a smooth dressing. Taste and add more shoyu or tamari and/or lemon or lime juice if needed. Set aside.

    For the sautéed kale, mix the olive oil with the miso paste. Heat a frying pan on a medium-high heat and add the olive oil and miso mixture. Add the kale and sauté until wilted. Sprinkle with the shichimi togarashi or red chilli flakes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

    To finish the beetroot dip, blend the cooked beetroot with the white beans, tahini and lemon juice. Taste and add salt if needed.

    Compose the bowls with the rice and wilted kale. Top with the curried cauliflower and carrots and add a dollop of the beetroot dip. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, top with the nori and drizzle with the dressing.

  • Green infusion bowl

    Grain bowls: Nina Olsson's green infusion bowl

    Nina says: “When I feel a bit run down, I start craving greener food. I’ll make extra-green bowls supercharged with chlorella dressing. Chlorophyll is the green compound in plants that is believed to rejuvenate our blood cells and so provides a boost for our overall health and energy levels. I think of these bowls as my green infusions.

    It’s easy to spontaneously create a green bowl as long as you bear in mind some simple pointers: keep a variety of textures and flavours; mix cooked ingredients with raw; aim for a contrast between creamy and crunchy, and between tangy, sweet and savoury.

    In this bowl, I’ve given broccoli a makeover by rolling it in panko breadcrumbs and roasting it in the oven to give it a delicious crispy bite. You can easily do this with a variety of vegetables. Once you’ve popped the broccoli into the oven, the rest is a breeze. Add quinoa, protein-rich beans or peas and a mix of seasonal green vegetables or whatever you already have at home.”

    About ocean greens

    “Chlorella is an edible green algae. Algae and seaweeds have long been popular ingredients in Asian kitchens. Some seaweeds and algae, such as chlorella, dulse and spirulina, are exceptionally rich in nutrients. Edible ocean greens are powerful and should only be eaten in small amounts. Seaweed and algae absorb heavy metals when grown in contaminated water, so consume edible seaweed only from trusted organic brands and suppliers.”

    Serves 2

    Ingredients

    • 115g quinoa
    • 250ml vegetable stock, or lightly salted water
    • 150g broccoli, chopped into chunky pieces (use stem and leaves)
    • 100g panko breadcrumbs
    • 2 avocados
    • 1 fennel bulb, shaved into thin slices
    • 2 handfuls of lettuce or baby spinach
    • 250g fresh (or frozen/defrosted) green peas or edamame beans

    For the marinade:

    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons cashew or almond butter (or other nut butter)
    • ¾ teaspoon wasabi paste or Dijon mustard
    • 1 tablespoon water
    • salt, to taste

    For the creamy chlorella dressing:

    • ¼ teaspoon chlorella or spirulina (or other green powder)
    • 2 tablespoons cashew or other nut butter
    • A handful of fresh coriander or basil
    • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • ⅓ teaspoon agave syrup (optional)
    • 1 garlic clove, peeled
    • ½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

    Method

    Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F), Gas Mark 4, and line an oven tray with baking paper. Cook the quinoa in the vegetable stock or lightly salted water for 15 minutes.

    Drain and set aside.

    Mix the marinade ingredients together until smooth. Pour the panko onto a plate. Dip and roll the broccoli in the marinade, then the panko to cover and arrange on the lined baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes, turning it over after 10 minutes.

    Blend the ingredients for the dressing and set aside. Taste and add more salt and/or lemon juice if needed. Peel, stone and quarter the avocados. Assemble the bowls, layering the quinoa and the rest of the salad ingredients. Drizzle with the dressing.

From Bowls of Goodness: Grains + Greens: Nutritious + Climate Smart Recipes for Meat-free Meals by Nina Olsson (£18.99, Octopus Publishing), out now

Images: Nina Olsson

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.