The first time I had rice salad, I was less than impressed.
Pasta salad was a familiar (albeit unwelcome) guest at picnics and barbecues when I was growing up, but I wasn’t a fan of the mayonnaise-based sauce, and besides, in my Italian-American mind, pasta should always be served hot. Rice salad, however, was a new acquaintance when we were introduced with much pomp and circumstance at a family reunion I attended with my French host family.
It was a face-off.
The salad featured sweet canned corn and sweet surimi crab substitute morsels, tossed with huge chunks of flavorless Emmental cheese, overcooked rice, and a dressing that added even more to the sugar content of what I felt would be better branded dessert. I believe there may have been an orangey November tomato or two thrown in as well. Still, as with my host family’s chicken-and-peach dish (baked with a packet of powdered onion soup mix) and the rhubarb tart we ate at all five family birthday celebrations that somehow happened to fall within the three months I was visiting, I swallowed it all.
It wasn’t until I started dating The Country Boy that I re-encountered rice salad. I don’t remember how it came up, but after I mentioned not liking the dish, he got quiet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, and he told me that rice salad was pretty much the only lunch dish his mother made in the heat of summer. Seeing as we were en route for his parents’ house in August, there was no question about it: I was going to have to try rice salad again.
Luckily, my new mother-in-law’s version of the salad wasn’t quite as sickly sweet as the salad I’d tried in the North. Hers had a tangy vinaigrette and fresh, seasonal tomatoes, Comté in place of Emmental, bits of salty ham. It was delicious.
I make rice salads frequently now, especially in un-air-conditioned French summers; they’re easy to make in advance – at night, when it’s cool – and enjoy straight out of the fridge. I like playing with the trope, making versions that depart from the one that most French people place on their summertime tables by adding some all-American flair. This is just one of my favorite ones.
Southwestern Rice Salad (serves 4)
2 cups raw long-grain white rice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup cooked black beans
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
2 red spring onions, minced
The night before, cook the rice according to package directions and drain.
While the rice is cooking, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Toss the rice with the dressing, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to serve, add the corn, black beans, tomatoes, and onion. Toss to combine and serve.