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 today 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 it 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.
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