This is a salad to put in your back pocket and come back to all summer long. It goes from weekend picnic to make-ahead weekday lunch in the snap of a finger, and it's full of satisfying nibbly, crunchy, chewy bits. The grapes are my favorite part — an unexpected burst of sweet in the middle of a bite. A tangy mustard vinaigrette adds the finishing touch and brings it all together.
It has taken me a while to appreciate a good chopped salad, and I've discovered that the key is using hearts of romaine as the lettuce. These long, skinny heads of lettuce have a good ratio of crunchy stem to tender leaf that works well in salads like this. I also like its mild flavor — romaine becomes a good backdrop for any other fruits, vegetables, or nuts you want to throw its way.
While I think this brown rice salad is at its very best if tossed shortly before serving, it also holds up well to refrigeration. I have made a big batch of this salad for lunch and portioned it over the week, and I've found that the romaine still has crunch on Friday.
I'm envisioning many picnics in this salad's future. Some grilled chicken and a tall glass of lemonade are about all you'd need for a perfect summer meal.
Chopped Brown Rice Salad with Grapes and Pecans
Serves 6 to 8
For the salad:
1 cup brown rice, long- or short-grained
1 cup whole pecans
1 heart of romaine
2 cups red grapes
1 cup crumbled ricotta salata
For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
Salt and pepper
Bring a 2-quart pan of water to a boil. Add the rice and a teaspoon of salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the rice is chewy and cooked through. Drain and set aside.
While the rice is cooking, heat the oven to 350°F and spread the nuts on a baking sheet. Roast the nuts in the oven for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until toasted a darker shade of brown and very fragrant. When cool enough to handle, transfer the nuts to a cutting board and roughly chop. Set aside.
Slice the hard of romaine down its length into quarters and then chop each quarter cross-wise into thin slices. Slice the grapes into quarters.
To make the vinaigrette, combine the vinegar, olive oil, brown mustard, a healthy pinch of salt, and a few cracks of black pepper in a small bowl. Whisk to combine, taste, and adjust any of the ingredients to taste as needed.
Combine the cooked rice, chopped pecans, chopped romaine, and grapes in a large mixing bowl. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad mix. Stir and toss the salad until all the ingredients are evenly coated. Stir in the crumbled ricotta salata, reserving a few crumbles to sprinkle over the top of the dish. Taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed.
Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the reserved ricotta salata. Leftovers will keep for about 5 days refrigerated.
Cooking the Rice: I find that cooking the rice in an ample amount of water helps make it chewy without being sticky — perfect for a salad like this. If you prefer the direct-ratio way of cooking rice, follow the instructions in this post: How to Cook Brown Rice.
Make-Ahead Moment: I think this salad is at its crunchiest, tastiest best when made and served the same day, so if you're planning to serve it the next day, prep all of the ingredients individually and then pack them into separate containers. Even the vinaigrette can be combined in a jelly jar. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the salad. Combine the salad ingredients and toss with the dressing just before serving.
Lunch Salad Ideas: To make this salad into a more complete meal for lunch, serve it topped with a poached egg, some flaked tuna fish, or leftover slices of chicken breast.
(Images: Emma Christensen)