One of my family’s favorite dishes -- the only one my just-graduating grown-up daughter has mentioned making in her own kitchen -- is a rice, corn and bean salad, improvised one summer a few years ago because I had some corn on the cob left over from a barbecue. It’s never been the same twice, partly because I’ve never remembered for sure what I put in it the first time and partly because I never have exactly the same ingredients on hand. Maybe it’s better that way.
Pantry salads, made by adding fresh ingredients to on-hand staples such as rice, grains, lentils and beans, are terrific for summer, when you tend to get a little carefree in your menu planning and end up with really great leftovers. Maybe you threw too much chicken on the barbecue or grilled 95 zucchinis. At this time of year, those kinds of leftovers make you start thinking about flavor. Wouldn’t that chicken be good with some of the tarragon you just picked from the garden? And the zucchini with some sliced prosciutto?
Best of all, they can be tossed together at the last minute to feed a family or a gathering of friends, or made ahead and refrigerated for a quick supper after a day at the beach. They’re great for picnics or taking to work for a lunch that reminds you of the weekend.
Pantry salads had a moment of vogue in the 1970s, when tabbouleh was groovy and pasta salad was chic. But the thing fell apart when home cooks ran amok, tossing in sugar snap peas and mandarin oranges with their mayo-coated cold pasta.
Now, salad bars like those at Go Veggie in Marina del Rey or at grocery stores such as Wild Oats Natural Marketplace and Whole Foods Market may inspire us with their ever-changing array of edamame, cranberry-quinoa and lentil salad variations. You see salads made with ingredients such as wheat berries, adzuki beans, pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds, jicama and all kinds of nuts and fruits. (Sometimes it feels like chaos.)
So think flavor first. And when it comes to pantry staples, think outside the pasta box: There’s a whole world of quinoa, Israeli couscous, farro, all colors of lentils and a wider variety of beans. Make old-fashioned ethnic ingredients such as kasha and cannellini beans new again.
A surefire path to deliciousness when improvising these salads is to use ingredients that combine in a flavor profile that echoes a familiar dish or cuisine.
Our black bean and corn salad takes advantage of the leftover corn, grilled or boiled, that inevitably results from a barbecue, and we give it a Southwestern flavor with cilantro, grilled red peppers, lime and scallions. Don’t have any grilled red peppers? Open that jar of roasted ones, or cut them up raw. It’s all good. And if you feel like shaking in a little cumin, no one’s stopping you.
An orzo salad borrows from Greek flavor combinations with mint, fresh oregano, chicken, olives and tomatoes. No orzo? Use any small shape of pasta.
Farro is a wheat grain that’s popular in northern Italy, so we stuck with ingredients from that region: prosciutto, grilled radicchio, anchovies and garlic. The result is a rich, smoky salad that’s intensely satisfying but not at all heavy.
Part of the fun of making new-school pantry salads, of course, is that it gives you a reason to stock up on all sorts of goodies, from sesame oil to pickled jalapenos, from preserved lemon to tamarind pods. You never know when you might need exactly that flavor to seal the deal.