Rice Salad

Outwitting the Wily Grain

Rice salads have all the allure of a cold wet blanket. Of course, at this time of year that's not necessarily a bad thing. When all is a-swelter, a cold wet blanket can be pretty darned nice to come home to.

On the surface, that would seem easy enough. You can cook the rice the night before--after things have cooled off. Combine it with the other ingredients, then throw it in the refrigerator and forget about it until it's time to eat.

There's nothing wrong with the general idea. It's the specifics that need a little work. Rice is trickier than it looks.

The problem is starch. Rice is full of it. And if you're not careful, your salad will be, too. There's nothing worse than cold, sticky, gummy rice (unless you happen to be making sushi, that is).

I've found the trick to avoiding the sticky syndrome is to cook the rice just as you would pasta--in abundant boiling water. This way, when the rice grains release their starch, it will be diluted by the water. When you drain the rice, it washes itself.

This is a fairly common restaurant shortcut. They serve it hot after spreading the rice on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven. In the case of rice salad, though, you don't care about a little extra moisture--you're going to dress it anyway.

Speaking of dressing, that's another little trick in this recipe. I discovered it quite by accident. After steaming the mussels for the garnish, the liquid smelled so good I couldn't resist adding a little to the (I thought) finished salad to see how it worked. It was perfect: a deep briny flavor that really pointed up the seafood.

Rice salads are best consumed within a day of being made. Any longer and the starch starts to play games. Long-grain rice will do two things if stored too long: It will harden and it will leak water.

Both problems are traceable to the nature of the starch in the rice (it's high in amylose, if you really must know). During cooking, the starch granules in the rice kernels have softened and swelled with absorbed water. As the rice sits and cools, the amylose chains in the granules begin to link back up. This makes the rice hard and it forces out some of the absorbed water. Technically, this is called retrogradation (roughly, the rice is returning to its original state).

You can get around this problem quite easily. First, you can use medium-grain rice. It won't look quite as pretty, but it is about a third lower in amylose than long grain and is thus less prone to retrogradation.

But if you're bent on long grain, just warm the rice before serving it. This will reverse the retrogradation and--in effect--start the clock again, so the rice can be cooled briefly without ill effect.

Rice can be tricky, but a good cook will always be trickier.

Seafood Rice Salad

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 1 to 2 hours chilling time

2 cups long- or medium-grain rice

2 lemons, plus more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 pound mixture of raw peeled small shrimp and cleaned calamari

1 pound mussels or clams

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 pound sliced soppressata or other spicy salami, cut in thin strips

1 red onion, diced small

Minced fresh herbs, such as basil, mint and parsley, optional

* Cook rice as you would pasta, adding it to plenty of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water and cooking until tender, about 13 minutes. Do not overcook rice, but do not undercook either. Rice should be soft completely through, but should not begin to "explode" at ends. Drain immediately and place in large mixing bowl, cover with towel and set aside 5 minutes.

* To rice, add juice of 1 lemon, salt, red pepper flakes and olive oil and stir gently to mix well. Do not stir too rapidly or rice can be crushed, becoming sticky. Chill 1 to 2 hours.

* Cook shrimp or calamari in rapidly boiling water just until firm: 1 to 2 minutes for small shrimp, 30 to 45 seconds for calamari. Drain, and if calamari are not cut in small pieces, do so. Place in small bowl with juice of 1/2 lemon and chill 30 minutes.

* When almost ready to serve, bring mussels or clams, white wine and juice of remaining 1/2 lemon to boil over high heat. Cover tightly and cook just until clams or mussels open, about 5 minutes.

* Remove rice from refrigerator and strain mussel cooking juice over top. Add cooked shrimp and calamari, salami and onion and toss well to mix.

* Adjust seasonings to taste. Salad should be pleasantly tart with just a hint of olive oil flavor. If desired, you can add some minced herbs, but this is a seafood salad, so be gentle. Just before serving, place mussels or clams in their shells in rice.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 333 calories; 750 mg sodium; 89 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

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