"Insalata di Riso is a mainstay that could easily slide into position on the All-American summer picnic table."
Outdoor eating is a huge part of Italian culture, especially over the weekend, when friends and family gather to enjoy long, languid meals served al fresco. Whether under a canopy of trees or a veil of stars, atop a roof or on a terrace overlooking the sea, every region has its own array of traditional dishes, served cold or at room temperature to satisfy this urge for fresh air.
Insalata di Riso is a mainstay that could easily slide into position on the All-American summer picnic table. Just like potato salad, it is a family favorite that is open to any manner of creative interpretations.
The bonus here is that the standard, long grain white rice you may already have in your pantry has the starring role. This is not a recipe for aborio or cannaroli rice, which by nature must be cooked slowly in order to coax out the abundance of natural starch, resulting in the creamy, soft texture that is the mark of a perfect risotto. Long grain rice works better here, because you can cook it to the perfect al-dente texture. The outer part softens just enough to make the grain tender, but still maintain its shape amidst all the other ingredients.
Cook the rice as you would pasta, in an abundance of rapidly boiling, salted water, tasting it often until the right texture is reached. It should be somewhat soft, but just slightly chewy. Drain the rice when it is done, and run it under cold water very well to completely stop the cooking process.
Don't freak out, but I'm not going to give you any exact measurements in this recipe, because the salad can be as big or small as you want it, and the proportion of rice to the other ingredients is really entirely up to you. To make the huge bowlful pictured, quite enough to feed 8 to 10 people, I used 1 1/2 cups of raw rice. For the add-ins, I measured anywhere from a few tablespoons to 3/4 of a cup.
Some type of cubed, cured meat is a very traditional ingredient I always want in my rice salad. I used mortadella, asking my deli guy to give me a wide slab that I could cut into cubes instead of thin slices. You could try a soft salami, or simple cooked ham, known as proscuitto cotto in Italy.
The other must-have ingredient is a semi-soft cheese that you can also cut into a cube, such as fontina, or a soft, young asiago or provolone; young pecorino or cacio di Roma works well, too. If you want to depart entirely from the traditional, you could certainly use a crumbled goat or feta cheese.
For the rest, just gather your favorites from the traditional antipasto platter, or whatever leftover veggies may be lurking in your refrigerator. If you don't want to buy full jars of marinated vegetables, or go to the trouble of roasting or marinating them yourself, just head for the antipasto section of the salad bar and pick what grabs your fancy.
Insalata di Riso is a terrific all-in-one dish for a picnic. It totes easy, doesn't require a knife, and tastes better and better as it sits and marinates. Tote it in an air-tight container and keep it chilled, allowing it to come to room temperature before serving.
- To feed a crowd of 8 to 10, use 1 1/2 to 2 cups of raw rice. Cook the rice in 3 quarts of rapidly boiling, salted water until it is tender, but retains a bit of chewiness. Drain the rice well, run it under cold water, and leave it in a colander suspende
- For the rest of the salad, you can any combination of the following ingredients, as much or as little as you prefer:
- Mortadella or prosciutto cotto, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
- Any semi-soft cheese, such as fontina, fresh asiago, young pecorino or soft provolone, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
- Diced celery, ribs and leaves
- Finely chopped red onion
- Pitted or stuffed green and/or black olives, halved and sliced
- Marinated hot peppers, chopped
- Roasted red peppers, sliced thin
- Fresh or roasted cubanelle peppers, diced
- Chopped hard-boiled eggs
- Frozen or fresh peas, cooked tender and shocked in ice water
- Finely chopped capers
- Thinly sliced scallions
- Marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
- Marinated mushrooms, quartered
- Cherry tomatoes, cut in quarters or eigths
- Fresh, flat-leaf or Italian parsley, chopped fine
- Julienned fresh basil leaves
- Minced fresh chives
Place the rice in a large bowl and add the rest of whatever ingredients you are using. Gently toss the entire mixture together with your hands to combine the ingredients thoroughly.
Dress the salad with red wine vinegar, or fresh lemon juice, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil to taste; season generously with kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Allow the salad to chill and marinate for 4 to 6 hours or overnight before serving. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to three days.