Looking for cold grain salad tips.
September 17, 2008 7:04 AM   Subscribe

How can I improve my cold grain/bean/wild rice/etc salads? They are either too vinegary or too bland, and generally not as good as it seems they should be.

They also don't seem to last as long in the fridge as deli-made ones, and are generally just a bit more tired and blah than the stuff I get out of good delis and catering shops and so on.

I dump in too much vinegar and get predictable results (pool of liquid, overwhelming vinegariness), but skimping on the vinegar always leaves me thinking "This needs more vinegar." Apparently not, but what does it need? Salt? More oil?

Thoroughly reliable recipes and general hints appreciated.
posted by kmennie to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I consider myself to be Wild Rice connoisseur and I urge you not to bury God's Gift to Mankind in a bowl of Lesser Creations with vinegar on top. Bring it out as a side dish, plain, with a little salt.
posted by unixrat at 7:09 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

How much salt are you using? Because the answer to, "why is my food bland" is usually, "because you're afraid of salt." (Try salting the grains while they cook, too; don't salt dried beans while they cook, though.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:17 AM on September 17, 2008

Vinegar gets more vinegary as it sits, in many cases, which may be part of the problem. You may want to try a shot of citrus juice with the vinegar, to bring out the flavors. Salt, too, can help. For commercial preparations, I would assume sugar is involved somewhere, so you might try a sprinkle (or honey, agave nectar, etc) to see if that gets you closer to the flavor you're looking for.

I can't have a lot of vinegar or my nose itches uncontrollably, so I tend to make salads like that with a yogurt base (often yogurt and lime). The yogurt zing is very nice, and you can find recipe hints from looking at recipes for Mediterranean salads. I also use a middle-eastern seasoning called sumac or tsumac in salads like that, it has an acidic note similar to vinegar. It may turn your salads a little purple, though.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:18 AM on September 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I use good olive oil (and plenty of it), and usually lemon instead of vinegar, and definitely a fair dose of salt and (freshly ground) pepper. In one of our homemade cold bean salad things we added a healthy dash of very, very nice (Asian) hot sauce that we could never find again... and it was glory. So that might be another ingredient to fiddle with.
posted by taz at 7:28 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I make quinoa in preparation for a similar concoction, I usually cook it with a cube of vegetable bouillon... While this can lead to a similarly overpowering flavor if in the wrong proportion, I don't usually grow tired of it before the leftovers are gone (2-3 days)...
posted by zachxman at 7:28 AM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're probably not salting enough while the grains are still warm. Once the salad cools down, all the salt in the world isn't going to improve the flavor.

But there are a lot of other factors, too. Whose recipe are you starting with? What kind of ratios are you using?

You might want to try the Barefoot Contessa's Tabbouleh, as her recipes specify an amount of salt rather than glossing over that crucial component with a lame "to taste."

Plus it's frickin delicious.
posted by bcwinters at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2008

Are you using fresh herbs? This is one of those times it'll count. And I need to second Lyn on the citrus. Use fresh juice and fresh zest to boost the clean, semi-acidic ooomph it sounds like you're looking for.
posted by piedmont at 7:31 AM on September 17, 2008

Delis probably use a lot more oil, butter, and salt than you are using. Most prepared food is like that, and it explains why it tastes so good. I'm also a big fan of adding cheese for extra oomph to salads like this - parmesan or feta, usually.
posted by vytae at 7:44 AM on September 17, 2008

A small amount of honey as well as some olive oil in the vinegar usually keeps my cold bean salads from vinegar overpowering the taste.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:49 AM on September 17, 2008

I don't know much about making your own dressing. But I have made this salad three times in the past month to share with family/friends, and it has been devoured. The dressing is really nice, and a combination of a couple different oils and vinegar and a bit of sugar along with salt/pepper. I think the sugar helps.

posted by sandraregina at 8:16 AM on September 17, 2008

I'm surprised Lyn says vinegar gets stronger with time. My experience is that it gets weaker if it sits around. I find red wine vinegar to be fairly harsh, while rice vinegar is mellower. So maybe you should mix them or try a different kind. I agree with other posters that say you probably need more salt.

Also, make sure you're boiling your pasta with salt. A lot. Seriously.
posted by O9scar at 8:19 AM on September 17, 2008

I don't have anything to add to the above excellent tips. I just wanted to share a couscous salad I'm especially fond of:

about 1/4 cup sesame seeds & pine nuts (if I haven't got the pine nuts, I'll use just walnuts, no sesame seeds)
1 tbsp butter (sometimes I use olive oil)
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup couscous
1 can (15.5 oz) chickpeas, drained
about 1/4 cup dried currants plumped in water
about 1/4 cup minced mint, cilantro and parsley) (sometimes I use curry spices instead)
Lemon juice

Toast the seeds and nuts in the over for 5 minutes at 400. Boil up the couscous with the salt and butter. Fluff it and toss it with the chickpeas, currants and herbs. Squeeze a little lemon juice across it and salt and pepper, if you feel like it.

I also like to boil up quinoa in broth. Mix it with cranberries, chickpeas and toasted walnuts. Sometimes a little red onion (rinsed first in water, which cuts back on the acrid taste). Then dress it with:
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbs brown rice vinegar
1 tbs plum vinegar (or pomegranate molasses or sherry vinegar)
2 tbs olive oil
posted by crush-onastick at 8:31 AM on September 17, 2008 [8 favorites]

I've been making a lot of rice and grain salads lately. The best one so far has been a curried rice salad with brown rice, golden raisins, peas, cashews, red pepper, carrots and scallions. The dressing was yogurt-based with garlic, curry powder, garam masala, cilantro, lime juice and vegetable oil.

The other salad that came out well was one from a Cook's Illustrated, which had you cook the rice in a unique way. First, toast the rice in a dry, hot pan for about 5 minutes (I found that with brown rice you had to stop at about 3 minutes, otherwise the kernels started to pop). Then, you boil the rice in copious amounts of water until it's done, then pour it into a colander and drain it. The rice salad had fresh pineapple, jicama, scallions and pumpkin seeds. The dressing was a simple lime vinagrette with cilantro and jalapenos, which was enhanced from the juice that the pineapple gave off. The article claims that this cooking method helps leech some of the excess starch from the rice, which helps the rice stay fluffy and not get dry and crunchy after it cools.

I've made several other rice salads as well, and found that the most successful all had either fresh or fruit, which helps keep the rice salad moist and stays much more flavorful after you refrigerate it than the other ingredients. Those that didn't have the dried or fresh fruit may have been good right after I made it, but they turned bland and boring once they spent time in the fridge.

Other grains I've tried to make cold grain salads with are quinoa, couscous (large Isreali type) and farro. Quinoa is my favorite grain, but I find that it gets very "clumpy" in salad form, but it may just be my method of cooking. Farro is excellent and easy to cook. Couscous is great, but a bit more bland than the other grains.

There's also a great recipe that I've made many times from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone" for couscous with dried fruits and a cumin-lime-cilantro dressing.
posted by skwm at 8:44 AM on September 17, 2008

As others have said above, the keys to flavor are salt during cooking, citrus juice, and fresh herbs.

I ring changes on this barley salad all summer long. Quantities below are approximate. This salad has an amazing ability to absorb vegetables -- good for cleaning out the fridge. It's better after it sits for a few hours.

Stella's Summer Barley Salad
serves 6 with leftovers

4 c. cooked pearled barley
1/2 red onion, diced
3 green onions, sliced
3 ears fresh corn, cut from the cob
2 avocados, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 bunch radishes, sliced
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped

juice of 2 limes
3/4 c. olive oil
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 t salt
1/2 t fresh ground pepper
1/2 t chili powder
pinch of sugar
posted by ottereroticist at 9:45 AM on September 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

N-thing the citrus. It really makes a huge difference. Also try cooking the grains in a good veggie stock (I find meat stocks make the grains clump) and using fresh herbs, especially parsley and rosemary.
posted by melissam at 10:32 AM on September 17, 2008

melissam said it: nthing the citrus. Lemon and lime.
posted by Beardman at 11:32 AM on September 17, 2008

Definitely citrus, replacing some or all of the vinegar. You can add some grated citrus peel if you want a definite lemon/lime/orange flavor in addition to the sourness.

Also try replacing some or all of the oil with a flavorful oil. Choose something that goes with the other ingredients, but you can try a really strong olive oil (not that cut-with-corn-oil stuff they sell for cooking with), or sesame oil (toasted is way better than raw), or various nut oils like walnut, almond, etc. These can be quite pricey (and again, look for oil from toasted nuts rather than raw, to get the most flavor for your money). However, you only use a little in each batch of salad so it's not that expensive per serving.

Instead of adding plain salt (which would probably help all by itself), try sneaking salt into your salads in the form of salty goodies like olives (good quality pitted Kalamata olives are one of my favorite salad-enhancers) or cheese, like crumbled feta or Parmesan or blue.

Lastly, croutons seem to make just about any salad better. Maybe it's the contrasting crunchy texture, but croutons are simply fun. (Add these immediately before serving; soggy croutons are not fun.)
posted by Quietgal at 12:34 PM on September 17, 2008

Nthing salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. For example, try sliced mint leaves... they make a wonderful difference. Another time, try basil. Experiment. Have fun!
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:21 PM on September 17, 2008

To umpteenth everyone else, salt and oil (plus other dressing goodness).

You could try looking at the ingredients of a shop bought salad you like to try and understand what it is about it you like.

Keep the salad and the dressing seperate until you are coming to eat the salad.

When adding the dressing, err on the side of caution - too little dressing can be rectified, too much can't.

I take rice and grain salads to lunch with me, and take a little travel pot of salt and pepper, in case I've underseasoned the salad. Someone said that once it's cold, no amout of salt will help. I don't think that's true if the salt is Maldon Sea Salt.

The lunch I will be having today:

100g Brown Rice (could be any rice or grain)
Half a tin of tuna
A hand full of soy beans (any green bean would be fine)
Loads of chopped basil
Salt and Pepper to taste

50% good quality extra virgin olive oil
Dash of sesame oil
Glug of light soy sauce (so easy on the seasoning above)
A dollop of whole grain mustard
posted by chill at 11:59 PM on September 17, 2008

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