What makes dinner in a bowl so satisfying? By “bowl dinner,” I mean everything from the deconstructed burrito bowl to the hodgepodge grain salad shielded strategically by a fried egg. I mean stews and chilis, I mean comforting soft polenta, and I mean a little bit of steak heaped on top of a whole lot of vegetable-studded rice.
Bowl dinners are freeing. You can pile in ingredients you love without worrying about how they’ll look arranged more traditionally on a plate. You can center your meal around inexpensive and healthful whole grains, and then use richer ingredients as toppings, a key way to lighten up a meal, eliminate wheat, or eat more vegetables. Bowl dinners are ensemble casts: every ingredient contributes to the taste but no one element is a diva.
Rather than go on in an attempt to define the enigmatic bowl dinner, I’ll to leave you to ponder its perks with a dozen of my all-time favorite examples, from healthful chicken chili to zucchini-tomato curry.
**12 Great Meals-in-a-Bowl**
1. Lentils and Sausage, Braised in Red Wine. All the flavor of the sausage imbues the earthiness of my favorite legume–lentils. Fill your bowl part way with mashed potatoes before topping with the savory beans.
2. Healthy Chicken Chili with Barley. This vegetable- and grain-filled chicken chili hits a mark somewhere between chili con carne and vegetarian black bean chili. Just as you eat it out of one bowl, this stew comes together in just one pot!
3. Polenta with Red Peppers, Fried Capers, and an Egg. The result of a pretty empty pantry, this bowl of soft polenta features crispy fried capers, pungent roasted red peppers, and a rich egg. Comfort food in a bowl for sure.
4. Vegetarian African Peanut Stew. Peanut butter headlines a handful of slightly strange ingredients in this hearty, sophisticated, and exotic vegetarian bowl.
5. Sweet and Sour Tofu with Boy Choy. This recipe comes to us from deep in the archives, made on the recommendation of a reader. I unearthed it a couple months ago and found that its savory-sweetness definitely held up over time. Boy choy rounds out the dish, making it a bowl meal when served over rice.
6. Vegetarian Fried Rice with Shiitakes and Cashews. Mushrooms, carrots, egg, and cashews transform day-old rice (perhaps from leftover takeout?) into a whole new meals that’s quick, satisfying and healthful.
7. Zucchini and Tomato Curry. This curry begins with toasted mustard and cumin seeds and is built up with browned onion, big cubes of zucchini, and a tangy-sweet tomato sauce. A dollop of yogurt cools everything down.
8. Thyme-Mushroom Quinoa Sauté. This one, like so many BGSK recipes, speaks to the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. When there’s extra quinoa lying around, I tend to cook up some vegetables and mix them in with the grain–and, naturally, slap a fried egg on top.
9. Mexican Pork Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Chile Sauce. The chef at Empellon served meatballs like these at Saveur’s holiday party, and before I knew it, I was buying queso fresco and toasting tortillas to make these meatballs myself. Unlike Italian spaghetti and meatballs, I like these flavorful bundles served in a bowl over rice.
10. Brown Rice Jambalaya. Whether or not it’s Mardi Gras, a healthful rendition of this Southern stew sticks to your ribs, at least temporarily. Andouille sausage replaces harder-to-find ham hock, and brown rice adds both texture and fiber to the one pot dinner, great for serving to friends.
11. Quinoa with Roasted Tomatoes, Avocado, and Pesto. This quinoa bowl contains pretty much every ingredient I adore: avocado, roasted tomato, pesto, chickpeas, and mozzarella. Only in a bowl could those random handfuls turn into a satisfying meal!
12. Seared Steak and Sesame Rice Salad. Steak isn’t the cheapest meat to gorge on, which is why this bowl geniusly takes advantage of a fresh, vegetable-and-rice salad to fill out a small-ish serving of grilled steak.