The unappreciated glories of rice salad
The world is cruel and unfair. Mediocrities are loved beyond all reason, while their betters languish unappreciated. Consider the tragic case of rice salad. It’s enough to make you weep. Walk by any deli case, and you’ll see bowl after bowl of salads made with pasta, but hardly a single one made with rice.
This is clearly a grave injustice. Pasta salads are almost always heavy and crude – cold starch drowned in mayonnaise. Rice salads, on the other hand, are delights – light and full of interesting textures and flavors.
That they are so ignored is terribly unfair. But you can do something about it.
At this time of year, I probably fix a rice salad once a week. They make a casually elegant first course for dinner parties, and they’re the kinds of leftovers that make you fall to your knees in gratitude when you find them in your refrigerator after a long day at work.
It’s hard for me to stop singing their praises. Rice salads are almost infinitely flexible. Given a little thought, I’m pretty sure you can make something delicious from whatever ingredients you have on hand right now.
They’re satisfying without being weighed down with lots of fat. In most cases, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil are all that’s needed to dress a salad that will easily serve four people as a main course.
And they’re incredibly easy to make. Cook some rice, garnish with cooked meat and vegetables, season to taste, give it a stir and you’re ready to go.
Well, there’s a little more to it than that. The devil, as always, is in the details.
The most important thing you need to pay attention to is how you cook the rice. You want to get rid of as much of the free starch as possible so the grains are light and separate and not gummy and clumped together.
Ironically, the best way to do this is to cook the rice as you would pasta, in a large pot of boiling water. This way, that starch will be diluted and washed away when you drain the cooking water.
Cook until the grains are tender but still firm. There shouldn’t be a trace of crunch, but at the same time, you don’t want to cook it to mush. Check the ends of the grains. You want to stop before they “explode” out.
Give the rice a quick rinse under the faucet afterward, just to get rid of any starch that remains, and then pat it dry. Spread it on a kitchen towel, cover with another kitchen towel and pat lightly.
While the rice is still slightly warm, season it. Once the grains are cold, they won’t absorb flavor as readily. So, salt, a little olive oil, a jolt of lemon or vinegar. If you have some cooking liquid from whatever meat or vegetables you’re using – seafood stock, chicken broth or glazing juices from the vegetables – by all means, add that too. I like to add chopped onion at this point too, so the flavor suffuses the salad gently.
Now you can let the rice cool the rest of the way. Stir in the cooked meat and vegetables right away if you like, but definitely wait to add the herbs and any soft foods, such as tomatoes or cheese, until right before serving.
You can even make rice salad in advance and refrigerate if that’s easier. Just make sure you give the rice a chance to come to room temperature before serving. I’ve also found that once the salad has been chilled, adding another tablespoon or so of olive oil will help bring it back to life.
That’s all there is to it. Just think how good you’ll feel about having done your part.
Cool Rice and Cucumber Salad
Total time: 30 minutes/ Serves 4 to 6
Note: Adapted from Deborah Madison’s “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”
1½ cups long-grain rice
2 or 3 cucumbers, seeded and finely chopped
½ cup finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped mint
¼ cup finely sliced green onion, including some of the greens
¼ cup Champagne or white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup yogurt
Green oakleaf, Boston or butter lettuce leaves, for garnish
1. Cook the rice as you would pasta: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice and cook until it is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not overcook or undercook it; the rice should be soft all the way through but should not be beginning to “explode” at the ends.
2. Line a jellyroll pan with a kitchen towel. Drain the rice and rinse it quickly under cool water, then spread it over the kitchen towel. Cover with another kitchen towel and gently pat dry.
3. Meanwhile, put the cucumbers in a large bowl with the parsley, dill and mint. In a small bowl, combine the green onion, vinegar, oil and one-fourth teaspoon salt.
4. While the rice is still warm, transfer it to a bowl and add the cucumber mixture, dressing and yogurt, and toss gently with a wide rubber spatula. Taste for salt and tartness.
5. Serve tepid or chilled, mounded on plates and garnished with light green lettuce leaves.
Each of 6 servings: Calories 275; Protein 6 grams; Carbohydrates 45 grams; Fiber 2 grams; Fat 8 grams; Saturated fat 1 gram; Cholesterol 1 mg; Sugar 3 grams; Sodium 119 mg.
Rice Salad, Paella Style
Total time: 40 minutes, plus cooling time / Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, cubed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound mussels in shell
1/4 pound calamari, cut into rings and bite-sized pieces
0.2 gram saffron threads
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 cups long-grain rice, rinsed well
3/4 cup sliced bottled roasted red peppers
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
2. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the chorizo and cook until it begins to brown and render fat, about 5 minutes. Add the white wine and increase the heat to high. When the wine is bubbling, add the mussels, cover and cook until the shells open, about 5 minutes. Add the calamari and cook until the edges curl, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
3. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chorizo, mussels and calamari to a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Add the saffron threads to the liquid in the pan and return to the heat. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half to about one-third cup.
4. Place the red onion in a strainer and rinse under cold water to remove some of its “bite.”
5. Cook the rice as you would pasta: Add the rice to the boiling water and cook until it is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not overcook or undercook it; the rice should be soft all the way through but should not be beginning to “explode” at the ends.
6. Line a jellyroll pan with a kitchen towel. Drain the rice and rinse it quickly under cool water, then spread it over the kitchen towel. Cover with another kitchen towel and gently pat dry.
7. Transfer the rice to a large mixing bowl. Pour the saffron liquid over the rice, add the red onion and stir gently with a wide rubber spatula to coat evenly. The rice should be a uniform golden color. Season to taste with about 1 teaspoon of salt, and set aside to cool completely. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated tightly covered; bring the rice back to room temperature before finishing the recipe. You may need to add a little olive oil to finish.)
8. Add the red pepper strips, lemon juice, parsley, chorizo and calamari to the rice, and stir gently to mix well. Season to taste. Transfer to a large, flat serving bowl, and scatter the cooked mussels over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Each of 8 servings: Calories 355; Protein 15 grams; Carbohydrates 46 grams; Fiber 2 grams; Fat 10 grams; Saturated fat 3 grams; Cholesterol 57 mg; Sugar 1 gram; Sodium 601 mg.
©2014 Los Angeles Times
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