over easy

The Tedious Art of Making the Most Instagrammable Grain Bowl

I’m an influencer now.

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

My Instagram is mediocre at best. I can never find the right light for selfies. I never notice cute handwritten signs outside of coffee shops. The first (and last) time I posted a picture of myself in a bikini, someone told me I was “brave.” But there is one genre of social-media pic I have yet to fully explore, and that is the humble-braggy “fitspo” of Instagram food pictures: The grain bowl.

Instagram’s #grainbowl tag is a vibrant journey of well-lit, carefully staged images of heaping bowls of vegetables, with breathless captions about how delicious, filling, and easy it can be to eat healthy. And though I’d overpaid for them in restaurants before, I hadn’t yet made a grain bowl myself. I wanted to. Not just because I generally enjoy grain bowls, but because I wanted to be the type of person who makes grain bowls — someone who always gets enough fiber in their diet, and probably meditates without even once thinking about Vanderpump Rules, and does their laundry regularly instead of just buying new underwear.

There are, conservatively, 80 million grain bowl recipes out there. Some of them are just frameworks (grain + protein + vegetables + sauce) but I wanted something tried and true. This recipe for a vegan quinoa bowl — with roasted beets, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus, toasted chickpeas, and an avocado sauce — had what seemed to be a manageable number of components.

And it probably would have been entirely manageable on a Sunday afternoon, Fresh Air playing quietly in the background, Terry Gross’s tender laugh filling your apartment while you cut up vegetables and plan your meals for the week ahead in a desperate attempt to ward off the existential angst of the Sunday scaries. Unfortunately, I chose to make my bowl after work one day, at the exact same time my roommate Mallory was preparing food for an office potluck. Since our kitchen has approximately two square feet of counter-space, and the various components of this bowl require almost a dozen different containers, this was no small feat.

SOME of the ingredients. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

If you’re pressed for time and end up making all the components at once, this bowl does require some careful time management and deft multitasking. You have to keep an eye on the quinoa simmering on the stove, the chickpeas toasting in a pan, and the veggies, which all need to go in the oven at different times (the sweet potatoes and beets roast for 45 minutes, the cauliflower for 25 minutes, and the asparagus for 20 minutes.) Then at some point you have to blend the avocado, lemon juice, coconut milk, olive oil and garlic into a sauce. I had two or three alarms set the whole time I was cooking, and repeatedly called myself a “magician.”

That being said, all the juggling is worth it, and each ingredient is delicious in its own right. The toasted chickpeas would be a great crunchy snack to put out at a party, and I hope someday to re-create David Blaine’s famous Drowned Alive stunt with that avocado sauce, only instead of holding my breath, I eat my way out. (Networks, feel free to contact me for details.)

Prepping and cooking everything took about an hour and a half (the recipe makes three servings), and once everything was ready, the real work of the grain bowl began: Staging the perfect Instagram pic.

I carefully arranged the ingredients into distinct segments, and tried to drizzle the sauce across them as artfully as I could, but the liquid just kind of glopped on top. Since it was nighttime, I didn’t have access to the kind of bright pool of late afternoon sunlight in which grain bowls always seem to be pictured, so I decided to compensate with another Instagram staple: The Moleskine notebook — a prop that says “I’m nourishing my mind as well as my body,” and “I probably ride a fixed-gear bike.” At the recommendation of my roommate, I also artfully spilled some quinoa on the dining table and placed the unused half of the avocado next to the bowl.

“Hmm, it looks a little empty,” Mallory said as I snapped pictures. “One sec.”

She returned with an enormous bunch of parsley, and a tomato.

“But there isn’t any parsley or tomato in the bowl,” I noted as she arranged them.

“It does not matter,” she answered, correctly.

Thirty or so pictures later, we were finally satisfied, and after some heavy editing, I posted the picture to my Instagram, where it so far has 64 likes, and Twitter, where it has 27. Since I shared it, I have gained zero (0) followers on Instagram and five (5) on Twitter, only one of whom I think is a bot.

So, this grain bowl may not have turned me into an Instagram influencer. But it tasted great. The tangy avocado sauce — which I will soon begin carrying around with me in a CamelBak so I can enjoy it on the go — pairs perfectly with the earthy, smoky flavor of the roast vegetable. And even though initially I didn’t think it was worth all the work, it was a delicious and filling lunch for the next couple of days. Most importantly, I was able to loudly announce, “I made a grain bowl for lunch!!” which I’m sure impressed everyone within earshot of me. I’ll probably make it again, eventually, on a weekend or a day off, after I’ve practiced my mindful breathing for 20 minutes, and exchanged a $20 bill for quarters so I have change for laundry. And I’ll make sure there’s better lighting for Instagram.

My report card
Preparation: A
Taste: A
Influencer status: Non-existant

My Overall Performance: B+

The Tedious Art of Making the Most Instagrammable Grain Bowl