We’re always on the hunt for interesting new side dishes. Of course, we’d usually rather have fries, roasted potatoes, mac-n-cheese or some other deliciously starchy carbs, but maybe an occasional, more healthy side can be delicious too. We were intrigued by the article and recipes in the most recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated’s magazine discussing “Really Good Brown Rice Salads,” not only because of the versatility of the salads, but also with the suggested method of boiling the rice in an abundance of water, in order to get a more evenly cooked end result. The first rice salad we tried was indeed “really good:” brown rice with jalapenos, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro and avocado, lightly tossed in a dressing made with olive oil, honey, garlic, lime zest and juice, cumin and salt & pepper. After trying (and loving) this Tex-Mex(ish) version of brown rice salad, we’ve successfully experimented with several other flavor combinations, including a Greek/Mediterranean style, and what we call an “Island” version that paired really well with grilled jerk chicken. We look forward to trying the other recipes suggested by Cook’s Illustrated (one with asparagus, goat cheese and lemon, and the other with fennel, mushrooms and walnuts), as well as coming up with other flavor variations. Plain old brown rice suddenly got a lot more interesting.
The folks at Cook’s Illustrated tested a bunch of different methods for cooking brown rice and concluded that boiling the rice in a large amount of water (much more than called for in the package instructions) allowed the rice to absorb liquid from all sides so that it cooked faster and more evenly. You could also just cook the rice in a rice cooker if you have one. If you don’t have a rice cooker, the original recipe calls for bringing 3 quarts of water to a boil (to cook 1 1/2 cups long grain brown rice.) We did a half recipe and used 6 cups of water for 3/4 cup rice. (I did math!)
When the water is boiling, add the rice and 1 teaspoon of salt to the water and cook until the rice is tender. The original recipe says to cook for 22-25 minutes, but we ended up cooking ours for about 40 minutes. Just keep tasting and cooking until the rice is as tender (or “toothsome”) as you like it.
While the rice cooks, whisk together the dressing ingredients: 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon honey, 1-2 cloves minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoons salt & pepper. Prepare the remaining salad ingredients: cut the tomatoes into small pieces (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of tomatoes total); stem and seed a jalapeno and chop it into tiny pieces; chop the green parts of 3 green onions; and chop about 2 tablespoons worth of fresh cilantro. You’ll want to wait to cut the avocado until just before you serve the salad, otherwise the avocado will turn brown.
Pro Tip: It’s a lot easier to zest a lime (or lemon) BEFORE you cut it in half. You might be surprised that I apparently haven’t learned this by now. Or not.
When the rice is tender, drain it in a fine-mesh colander.
Then spread the rice out into an even layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper to help it dry out further. Sprinkle the rice with a teaspoon of either vinegar or citrus juice, depending on the dressing you’re using for your salad. Since our dressing included lime juice, we sprinkled the rice with lime juice. Let the rice cool completely — about 15 minutes.
Combine the salad ingredients — rice, tomatoes, jalapeno, green onions, cilantro and avocado — then slowly add the dressing and toss until the salad is dressed to your liking. All the flavors paired nicely with the nutty brown rice, and the different textures came together for a fresh and cohesive dish.
We liked the Tex-Mex(ish) brown rice salad so much that we tried a version with Greek/Mediterranean ingredients: tomato, cucumber, Kalamata olives and parsley, tossed in a dressing made with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon each chopped fresh oregano and basil, 1 teaspoon chopped shallot, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1/4 teaspoons salt & pepper. This rice salad would go well with all different kinds of proteins, including lamb, souvlaki, and kebabs, just to name a few.
The success of our prior brown rice salads inspired us to try a version with a Caribbean flair, to pair with our first-ever (mostly successful) grilled jerk chicken experiment. We added mango (on sale around these parts lately), jalapeno, green onion and cilantro to the rice, then dressed the salad with a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin and 1 clove minced garlic. Black beans would probably also be good in this “Island” version of brown rice salad, if you like black beans. That’s the beauty of this side dish — you can’t go wrong with perfectly cooked brown rice, a few veggies and/or herbs of your choice, tossed in a light citrus or vinegar-based dressing for a fresh and healthy protein accompaniment. Endless, interesting possibilites!