A recipe composed basically of rice, oil, vinegar and seasoning might not sound so enticing. But rice salad is surprisingly delicious. Somehow the ingredients come together to create a whole that is much tastier than its parts might suggest.
Like potatoes and pasta, rice is neutral and harmonizes with most other ingredients. Rice salad can fulfill the same role as potato salad but is easier to make as there's no work comparable to peeling or slicing potatoes. Besides, rice cooks faster than potatoes.
Although we don't usually associate rice with French cuisine, rice salad is very popular in France. Like potato salad, rice salad is a standard item at charcuteries, where prepared food is sold.
Even Francophiles would be surprised to discover that France's most famous chef, Escoffier, wrote a whole cookbook on rice and recorded many traditional rice salads. Unlike many classic dishes, these salads are simple and often combine just a few ingredients. Salade andalouse matches the rice with garlic vinaigrette, onion, parsley, sweet red peppers and tomatoes. Salade des moines has rice, asparagus, chicken, mustard vinaigrette and a sprinkling of black truffles.
For salads, it's best to cook the rice like pasta, in plenty of boiling salted water until it's tender but slightly al dente. If overcooked, the rice will be gummy and the grains will clump together. The cooked rice is rinsed with cold water, which also preventssticking.
Clear vinaigrette is the preferred dressing because it allows the salad's colors to show. Because vinaigrette is light, it mixes easily with the grains without crushing them. The classic version uses vegetable oil and wine vinegar, but olive, walnut and hazelnut oils also give delectable results, as do herb vinegars and lemon juice.
French and Italian rice salads often feature capers, olives, anchovies or pickles. Fresh basil, dill, cilantro, tarragon or mint lends a welcome, fresh touch. Seasoning the salad well with salt and pepper is important so it won't be bland.
You can accent rice with seafood, poultry, meat or cooked or raw vegetables. Cooked salmon, shrimp, crab meat or lobster makes a delicious rice salad; so does lox, smoked fish or even canned tuna. Roast chicken, turkey and beef, either home-cooked or purchased, are good additions too.
Italian rice salads often call for a little prosciutto and thin strips of cheese. Cooked peas, carrots, raw or roasted peppers or diced tomatoes are colorful partners for the rice. You can even add fruit in small amounts for a delicately sweet accent; I especially like dried cranberries for their beautiful color and sweet-tart flavor.
White rice provides the best background for dramatic color contrast with other ingredients, but other types of rice give interesting tastes.
I usually cook enough rice for two meals, especially if I'm using brown or wild rice, which take longer to cook than white rice. This way it's easy to have rice salad ready quickly. Quick-cooking brown rice and aromatic rice such as pecan rice are also good choices.
Rice salad is a great accompaniment for cold roasted chicken, turkey or beef or hot grilled poultry or meat. It can also be a light main course and is perfect for a potluck dinner, picnic lunch or a buffet table.
Summer and early fall are the best seasons to enjoy this cool dish, when the tomatoes are beautiful and perfectly ripe. At other times of the year, you can serve the tasty, easy- to-make chicken-rice salad with its herb and caper dressing on a bed of lettuce instead.
Tomatoes stuffed with chicken-rice salad
Makes 6 servings as appetizeror light main course.
1 1/4 cups long-grain white rice
2 celery stalks, diced
1 1/2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey
3/4 cup pitted green or black olives, quartered lengthwise
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons capers, drained
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 1/2 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground pepper
6 large tomatoes
1/3 cup pecan halves, toasted
Boil about 2 quarts water in large pan and add -- salt. Add rice and boil uncovered until just tender but still firm, 12 to 14 minutes. Check by tasting. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well.
Mix rice with celery, chicken, olives, basil, parsley and capers in large bowl.
Make vinaigrette dressing by whisking thoroughly vinegar, oil, salt and pepper to taste in small bowl. Add to rice mixture and mix gently. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more oil and vinegar if desired. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes or up to 2 days.
Halve tomatoes horizontally.
Spoon out interiors, leaving layer of pulp attached to skin to form a shell. Turn tomatoes over on plate and leave to drain about 30 minutes.
Halve pecans lengthwise, then crosswise. Set aside 12 pecan pieces. Stir remaining pecans into salad. Fill tomato halves with salad, mounding filling. Set 2 pecan pieces on each one. Serve within 1 hour.