Grains bring different characters to different seasons. When it’s cold, they’re mostly porridge, or beds for stews and stir-fries. But as spring turns to summer, it’s time to think about grains in salads. And these salads make for a terrific transition to the time, which will be here soon enough, when you wish you didn’t have to use the stove at all.
Grain salad is more of a concept than a “dish” — there are virtually infinite variations. But the current season could not be more ideal, replete with late-spring and early-summer vegetables that require only chopping, slicing or grating. All that you’ll need to cook are the grains, which neither demand very much of your attention nor heat up very much of your kitchen.
I typically opt for heartier grains that retain a chewy texture when cooked, like farro, brown or wild rice, pearled barley, wheat berries, bulgur or steel-cut oats. For grains with a bit more tenderness, quinoa, couscous and white rice are all excellent options.
The method I use to cook almost every grain — bulgur, couscous and wild rice are exceptions — is simple: Put 2 cups of the grain in a small to medium saucepan with a large pinch of salt and water to cover by about an inch. Bring it to a boil, then adjust the heat so that the mixture bubbles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding boiling water if necessary to keep the grains covered; when they’re tender, they’re done. Depending on the grain you’ve chosen, this could take anywhere from 15 minutes (pearled barley) to an hour (wheat berries). If there is water remaining in the pot when you’re done, strain it. Remember that even after you toss the salad, the warm grains will continue to cook, so err slightly on the side of undercooking. Overcooked grains become gummy.
While the grains are cooking, whisk together any vinaigrette you like in the bottom of a large bowl, then prepare whatever veggies and flavorings you’re using, and toss them all together. Leftover grains work fine here, though it’s nice to toss the salad while the grains are still warm, so that they soak in the vinaigrette and intensify the flavor of the other ingredients. Warm food is good at this alchemy, and there’s time remaining to take advantage before it gets too hot.
The Assembly: Combine about 2 cups cooked grains from above with 1 cup raw vegetables, fruit or both and flavorful accents. Toss with a vinaigrette and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.
The Dressing: Basic vinaigrette of 3 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice, plus salt and pepper.