I started making any number of rice salads simply because Oliver likes eating rice, and it’s easy to make a big batch and pick at it all day long. I also recently decided our family was going to steer clear of plain white rice, so I started looking for ways to dress up brown rice, hoping Oliver wouldn’t notice. Of course he did, but he’s coming around. My true ulterior motive here is to make packing Oliver’s summer camp lunch easier. It turns out just about everything we eat is either a choking hazard or an allergen. (You’d love the notes Oliver comes home with, “grapes are not allowed as they are a choking hazard, also no popcorn. Also, you are a dimwit”)
Fortunately, grain salads are all the rage these days, right? I mean, rice, faro, wheatberries, add them to a regular fare of greens of things and suddenly you’ve got a meal. It’s been my go-to when D is traveling. Rice is an easy platform to build some flavor into a bowl of veggies, with a pad of compound butter, or a splash of vinaigrette, tossed to coat – done. Not to mention it breaks up the monotony of leafy things. Earlier this week I was stumbling through a rather poorly conceived meal when I realized I was building a rice salad as a back up. When it came time for dinner, I wasn’t much of a salesman for the sad sack of a meal I started out to make. D wisely said, “I’ll have what your having.” And would you believe D liked the rice salad? He said it was like a burrito bowl. On face value, being compared to fast food might not seem like a compliment, but from D, it’s certainly a stamp of approval. I’ll take it.
Fitting of the summer solstice, this particular salad is an exercise in perseverance. First off, start to finish it takes some time, at least it takes me some time. I guess some people may be able to forge through everything in an hour or so, but for me it takes the better part of an afternoon. It’s perfect for the days you’re bumming around the house, hiding from the heat, catching up on laundry and correspondence. It requires the occasional break to tend to your rice, the hour to let if cool down. If your all caught up on your chores, these breaks are also great opportunities to turn up your tunes, pretend you’re on a Brooklyn rooftop, and grab your closest dance partner, even if he’s pint sized and his only move is a clockwise spin.
Second, I’m just going to say it. You will experience doubt while your building this salad. First the coconut rice is good, but sweet. It’s meant to anchor the dish, so if you start tasting it in the meantime, you’re bound to think this its sweet, but flat, and wonder if you made the right choice with this salad. It’s also not much to look at. For this reason, you’ll have to trust me. Do not omit the ginger and lemongrass. The first time I made it I left out the lemongrass, but it just might be my new favorite thing, and as the rice cools to room temperature, these extras add refreshing layers to the dish, somehow uplifting the other vegetables.
Next you’ll cook your corn (or char it on your burner, the way I obsessively do) and mix your vinaigrette. I’ve been adding more and more lime and vinegar (perhaps to counteract the weight of that rice). But the beauty of making your own is you can adjust to your preference. If its not quite right at the end, a good squeeze of lime will do just fine. Instructions to ‘season to taste’ inevitably induce some sort of panic in me, for it requires a good handle on personal taste, the shortcomings of which are generally why I’m dependent on a recipe in the first place. But to the best of your ability, let go, and add the lime juice, salt and pepper until you find a happy place. I generally ‘taste’ my way to an entire helping of this stuff, and I’m better for it.
On to the tomatoes, which you’ll cut in half and sprinkle them with salt. Season as you go, building confidence as you tie it all together. Its when you get it all in one bowl that it may dawn on you, its just a big bowl of rice and veggies. I catch myself thinking things like “we’ll need a protein”, or “certainly we’ll need more than this”. On the days my doubts get the best of me we inevitably we pick around the bones, while heaping seconds and thirds of this humble salad. Once certain this dish couldn’t manage our appetites on it own, we find ourselves happily wrong; this is all we needed. I guess it’s the hope for all salads, to be greater than the sum of its parts, right? On that point, this salad hits all the right notes- sweet, slightly tangy, crunchy, tomato-y, summer-y. And it has a way of erasing all the doubts you drug around while pulling it together. Good food can do that, if only for a few moments.
This salad is a natural candidate for barbeques and family cookouts, highlighting the best of summer’s produce, satisfying and refreshing. Its also perfect for huddling around your dining room table at sunset, savoring the cooler air the night has brought with it, or if your on my schedule, watching late night television, because the babe has just now gone to bed and damnit you’re going to take five minutes to yourself before you collapse. In those precious moments I find I can breathe a little easier because even though the dog days of summer are yet to come, the longest day of the year is behind us, the summer’s bounty ahead of us. The world is our oyster, and we have this crowd-pleasing coconut salad to fall back on.
Coconut Rice Salad
Adapted from The Year in Food
- 1 cup brown rice
- 1 can light coconut milk
- 2 inch stalk of lemongrass, cut in half
- 2 inch knob of ginger, peeled
- 2 ears of corn
- 1/2 cup sliced shallots
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
- 1/2 chopped cilantro (feel free to add basil)
- 2 cups arugula
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp lime juice (plus more to finish)
- 1 1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
To make rice, combine rice, coconut milk, lemongrass and ginger and 3 oz of water in medium pan over high heat. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer to all liquid has evaporated. It should take about 45 minutes. Move to a large mixing bowl and refrigerate to cool, or if you have all day, allow the rice to come to room temperature.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cut ears of corn in half and add to pot. Boil for 5-7 minutes, until corn is cooked. While corn is cooking whisk olive oil, lime juice, vinegar and minced garlic together. It’s good for the vinaigrette to have some time for the flavors to meld. Remove corn from water, either by pouring into a colander or using kitchen tongs. When corn is cool enough to handle, stand it up on a cutting board and cut off the kernels, trying to keep some of them intact.
Cut your tomatoes. I like to cut them in half, because I like the pop in a bite of tomato, you can make them smaller if you prefer. Lightly sprinkle them with salt.
Heat a splash of oil in a pan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until caramelized, about ten minutes, stirring frequently.
Add tomato, corn and shallots to the rice bowl, mix lightly then add the vinaigrette. I wait until just before serving to mix in the arugula and cilantro (basil is a nice touch as well).