It’s back to school week in New Jersey and time seems to be at a premium. Backpacks to be packed, teachers to meet, and, thankfully, end-of-summer play dates squeezed between it all to take our minds off the colder seasons ahead (not that we’re complaining…I love autumn in the Northeast!).
This week’s CSA pick-up got squeezed in around all of that. Daughter 1 and daughter 2 followed me around the farm this week for pick-your-own cherry tomatoes (Sun Golds, red, and grape varieties), okra, peppers, herbs and flowers. We also came home with onions, squash, scallions, lettuce, beets…made me almost want to find an actual cornucopia and fill it. Almost. But, pulling in the garage at 6:00 PM without a dinner plan could have spelled disaster. I was thinking on my feet by that time and, wanting to avoid a total evening meltdown, turned to the ever-popular but sometimes forgotten rice bowl.
Looking back, the day daughter 1 actually agreed to eat rice was a turning point in our dinner preparations. I should be able to remember exactly when that was but it was probably the frustration of serving chicken nuggets and tater tots one too many times combined with far too many “please just try it” moments that has somehow blotted that memory from my mind (kind of like childbirth, I suppose…which, though more painful, certainly ended sooner).
We now have no fewer than five varieties of rice in the pantry and our Zojirushi rice cooker spends more time on the counter than on the shelf. (Don’t have one? Go splurge for one right now and thank me later!)
For our rice bowl dinner we choose short grain brown rice, ready in under an hour (just enough time to get the kids in and out of the bath — I was multitasking here and made good use of the “down time” while things cooked). And with all those super fresh veggies our plan came together pretty quickly.
This is a great meal to have in the repertoire because you can tailor it to suit any given food whim or craving. At its most simple, it’s just a bowl of rice topped with, well, stuff. Our stuff this week was roasted veggies — and I had a portion that was completely vegetarian. You could just as easily cut up some cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes and have a kind of hot/cold salad combo. Or, stir fry broccoli, carrots, ginger and scallions and top with a fried egg. Add meat. Or don’t. The rice is just a blank canvas — add whatever you like!
Here’s what went into ours:
The Mighty Rice Bowl: Short Grain Brown Rice with Oven-Roasted Vegetables
2 cups short grain brown rice
2 medium eggplants, trimmed and cut into 2 inch cubes
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch sections
1 red bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 green bell pepper, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 onion, sliced top-to-bottom into 1/2 inch strips (not rounds)
1 large handful — about a cup — of cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Several grinds pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil chiffonade
A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for serving
Protein of choice…I used 2 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled, but you could also top with several ounces of poached and seared shrimp, or several links of Italian sausage, cooked and cut into rings (or some combination of any of those ingredients)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Cook the rice according to directions and, when finished, keep warm.
While the rice cooks combine all the cut vegetables in a large bowl and stir in the olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme, coating the veggies well. Spread the veggies into one layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the carrots, eggplant and tomatoes have softened and the peppers and onions have just barely started to brown. Don’t let the veggies burn though — you might have to keep your eyes on them during the last 10 minutes at 400 degrees.
Reduce oven to 350 degrees and roast for another 30 minutes until quite tender. You may want to stir the veggies slightly during this time to redistribute on the baking sheet and to make sure they cook evenly without scorching.
To serve, put approximately 1 cup of cooked rice into each serving bowl and top with equal amounts of the veggies. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and about 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar. Top with some basil and a small amount of crumbled feta or whatever protein you choose to use (or not…the veggies are quite good on their own).
Parent rating: five stars. I went for the all-vegitarian version with a little feta. The basil was the unsung hero of this dish, added at the end for a light, fresh note. Delicious, reasonably fast, and if you double the quantity it makes a great day 2 lunch. Also packs quite easily, so I sent daughter 2 to school with leftovers (she requested it, over a turkey and cheese sandwich offered as an option!).
Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. I cheated a little bit and didn’t serve any eggplant or basil in their portions, which neither of them particularly like. I loaded up on the carrots for them though, and also put a couple of shrimp on top. Also, daughter 1 didn’t get any balsamic. I think that really talks to the versatility of this dish…add what you want, omit what you don’t like. It’s all good. Very, very good.