BOWLS OF PLENTY: Recipes for Healthy and Delicious Whole-Grain Meals

Exclusive Excerpt + Free Recipe from Carolynn Carreño

About a dozen years ago, I was dining at a Boston seafood restaurant owned by a renowned New England chef, when the server asked me,

“How do you stay so skinny eating like this?”

(Not that I am so skinny, but I do try to be so healthy.) The server was setting down several plastic baskets of fried food as she said it — it was that kind of seafood place. I was with my then editor at Saveur magazine, Colman Andrews, and he answered for me: “When she’s not out, eating like this, she’s home eating brown rice and broccoli.”

It was true.

Colman said it with not a little bit of scorn, playfully trying to shame me. At the time, eating healthy was still frowned upon in the “gourmet” world. Eating everything, a hard-and-fast policy of not holding back, was the sign of a true epicurean warrior. Who would have thought that just a decade later we would be an entire nation of health-conscious foodies, and that bowls like those I was enjoying within the walls of my New York City apartment, wherein whole grains provides the virtuous base to tastier stuff piled on top, would be served everywhere, from national fast food chains to the most precious farm-to-table restaurants?

This book is a collection of recipes for just such bowls, from the most humble and easy to prepare, to some that are a little more involved, and more decadent.

I like to think I come to the world of whole grains honestly. I grew up in the 1970s in Southern California, with a pseudo-hippie mother who drove a van with wall-to-wall shag carpet and made macramé plant hangers and stained glass windows in her spare time. Although she wasn’t much for cooking, she billed herself as a “health nut,” and wouldn’t let us eat anything white. We would sooner have found a monkey in the house than a loaf of Wonder Bread. “It’s just white flour and water,” she would say. “No nutritional value!” Instead, she stocked the pantry with Oroweat Honey Wheat Berry bread, which was packed with chewy wheat berries and sunflower seeds (and is to this day my favorite base for avocado toast or to make French toast), and when my sister, Christy, and I would lobby for Froot Loops or Cap’n Crunch cereal, she would tell us, “You might as well eat a Hershey’s bar for breakfast!” Well, okay… But except during s’mores season, those were off-limits, too. Instead, into the cart would go boxes of Quaker 100% Natural Granola, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, and jars of wheat germ, all of which, despite their hefty sugar content, made the cut because they looked natural. Venturing out into the world, when I was sixteen, I got my first job, filling the bulk bins at a natural food store. So although Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice, complete with the cook’s crutch of that era, “the flavor packet,” was the only grain found in my house, and about as “whole grain” as that Hershey’s bar, I was aware at an early age of the existence of foods like amaranth, barley, millet, and quinoa.

I started cooking whole grains myself about fifteen years ago, around the same time I started writing about food, which was long before words and phrases like “detox” and “eating clean” became part of our national culinary vocabulary. I did it for one simple reason:

I wanted to feel good.

Magazine assignments for Saveur, Bon Appétit, and Gourmet had me wandering the markets of Mexico City eating all manner of braised meats stuffed into corn tortillas and bound by melted cheese; or traveling through the Mississippi Delta subsisting on such local staples as lard-fried fruit hand pies, fried chicken livers, and lemon icebox pie. Back home in New York City, I was out several nights a week at the hottest new restaurants or food industry events, where I might sit down to a dinner that consisted of a series of rich, intricate morsels, each seeming harmless as I lifted a Chinese soup spoon to my lips, or popped a bite into my mouth, but lethal when there were twenty more such bites after that one. Even the freshest farmers’ market vegetables were cooked in such a way as to absorb as much butterfat as the laws of physics would allow. After these nights, I would wake up with a food hangover. I felt tired. My mind was foggy. My stomach was bloated. And so it was that I retreated to a private life of brown rice and cruciferous vegetables, until the next night of foie gras this and truffled that. This was my style of yo-yo dieting.

Today, even though I can be found steaming brown rice or quinoa at least three times a week, I am a flavor-first cook. I come from a “gourmet” point of view, not a “health food” point of view. (In a nutshell, I eat blueberries because they taste good, not for the antioxidants they contain.) I’ve written cookbooks with and cooked in the kitchens of some of the most esteemed chefs in the country. And I have had the great privilege of eating in great restaurants, from barbecue joints in Alabama, Memphis, and Texas to the best restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Italy, Mexico, and beyond. These experiences have informed my expectations. When I prepare a meal, I know how good that thing has the potential to taste and that’s how I want mine to taste. I want my food to be so good that someone might actually write home about it. Which is all to say that I am not a “health food nut.” I am a food nut. Granted, I am a food nut who wants to take care of my one and only body, and big bowls piled with grains, vegetables, beans, and small portions of animal protein are the way I have learned to do that. This book is a collection of those bowls, recipes that reflect the balance that I’ve learned to strike between wanting delicious food, and wanting to feel good — on a daily basis.

Although I never would have believed that my personal mechanism for coping with overly rich food would become a national phenomenon, now that it has, it seems almost obvious, or at least inevitable.

The grain bowl is a reflection of our current attitude toward food.

Yes, we’re a nation of pork belly–obsessed food snobs, but we are also a nation that worships at the altar of healthy, and that believes there is virtue, salvation eternal youth, and maybe even everlasting life in eating nutritious foods.

The grain bowl manages to straddle both that near religious passion we have for eating well and the great American desire to have it all — particularly if what we’re having tastes terrific.

In the grain bowl, and in the recipes in this book, we are literally able to have our cake and eat healthy, too.

MOLE TEFF AND CHICKEN with Avocado and Creama

Mole poblano is a Mexican sauce made of ground chiles, nuts, and chocolate, among a long list of other ingredients. Very few people make their own; even in Mexico, it’s completely respectable to start with a bottle of Doña María (available at grocery stores), as this recipe calls for. Chicken with mole is a classic, but the way it’s usually served — with the sauce blanketing a dry, flavorless chicken breast — leaves a lot to be desired. In this recipe, chicken thighs are braised in mole and then shredded with the braising liquid, so the end product is like the mole version of shredded barbecue chicken. It’s the best chicken mole I’ve ever had, in my humble opinion. I garnish it exactly the way I would if I were making a traditional mole dish: with avocado, crema, white onion, and toasted sesame seeds and serve them on the mole left base.

If you’re intrigued by the mole but you don’t eat animals, replace the mole chicken with roasted mushrooms.

For a more mainstream mole bowl, serve the chicken and toppings on a bowl of plain brown rice or quinoa. Serves 4


2 cups chicken stock, homemade or sodium-free store-bought

1/4 cup Doña María Mole paste (from a glass jar)

6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

Canola oil (or another neutral flavored oil)


1/4 cup Doña María Mole paste

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup teff


1 ripe avocado, quartered, pitted, and peeled

1 lime, halved

Kosher or sea salt

4 tablespoons Mexican crema or sour cream thinned with water or milk to a drizzling consistency

Toasted white sesame seeds, for sprinkling

1 white onion, thinly sliced into rounds or half-moons

To prepare the chicken, adjust the oven racks so one is in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Combine the stock and mole in a bowl. Smash and stir the mole with a whisk or fork to break it up and dissolve it. Season the chicken with the salt.

Coat a Dutch oven or ovenproof skillet with oil and heat the oil over medium-high heat until it slides like water in the pan and is sizzling hot but not smoking, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken thighs, skin-side down, and cook until they are deep brown, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook for 2 minutes on the second side. Pour the mole-stock mixture around the chicken, adding enough so it comes halfway up the chicken; you may not use all the stock mixture. (Throw it out or use it in place of some of the water to make the teff.) Cover the pot and put the chicken in the oven to cook for about 1 1/2 hours, until it is fork tender. (Stick a fork in a thigh and twist; the meat is done when the fork turns easily.) Remove the pot from the oven, uncover, and let the chicken rest in the liquid until it’s cool enough to handle. Shred the chicken into a small saucepan; throw out the skin and bones. Skim the fat off the braising liquid with a spoon or ladle, discard the fat, and pour the remaining liquid into the saucepan with the chicken. Bring the liquid to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook the chicken and sauce together until the sauce has reduced and the chicken and sauce are one, about 10 minutes.

To prepare the teff, combine the mole, salt, and 2 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan. Smash and stir the mole with a whisk to break it up and dissolve it. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Rain in the teff, stirring with the whisk as you add it. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer until the grains are tender and thick, like loose polenta or porridge, about 30 minutes.

To assemble the bowls, season the avocado with the juice of the lime and salt. Spoon the teff into four serving bowls and pile the shredded chicken on top. Put the avocados on top of the chicken. Garnish with the crema, sesame seeds, and onion slices.

For more, check out Bowls of Plenty by Carolynn Carreño. Published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2017 Carolynn Carreño.

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