It’s 1989 calling. They want their grilled chicken breast back. Something about how it’s the only way they know to make their salads exciting. How sad.
When I’m ravenous but still in the mood for something light, grain salads are what I crave, and once you get the hang of them, so will you. The sautéed mushrooms add an extra kick of meaty savor and deliver you from the tyranny of grilled chicken breast and greens.
To be super clear, a salad isn’t a recipe. It’s some stuff in a bowl that you call a salad. Greek flavors dominate here because that’s my comfort zone. Even when making it for the first time, bring this salad into your own world with veg and seasonings that strike your fancy. Heck, if I’d not just had a root canal the day before, I’d have insisted on some toasted walnuts for a nice, bitter crunch.
This yields enough for two dinner-sized portions.
Tomato Pilaf & Mushroom Salad
1 C medium-grain white rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 C water
1 red bell pepper
8-ish white or cremini mushrooms
1/2 C crumbled feta
1 small head of green leaf lettuce
as many Kalamata olives as you like
1/4 C red wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 generous teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp oregano, finely ground
1/2 tsp sea salt
Prep lettuce to your liking and cut bell pepper to fine dice. Clean and slice mushrooms. Make dressing by whisking all ingredients together in a bowl until creamy.
To make the pilaf, heat a wide pan with a tight fitting lid over medium with olive oil. Stir constantly until rice turns golden brown and smells of warm nuts, about 15 minutes. (Anyone who’s ever made Rice-a-Roni will recognize this step.) If oil starts to smoke at any point, lower heat immediately. Add tomato paste and stir for two minutes, or until it turns a deep red. Add onions and stir for a couple more minutes to allow them to soften a bit. Add water, then salt and cinnamon. The water’s going to splatter and sputter, so be careful! Stir three full revolutions, cover, lower heat to just-above lowest setting, and set a timer for 20 minutes.
Do not, under any circumstances, stir this rice again. You will turn it into mush. Mushy rice is for old, toothless people. When the time is up, check the rice by gently inserting a fork to make a peep hole to the bottom of the pan. If all of the water is gone, you’re done. If not, give it five more minutes. When it’s done, remove the lid, wrap it in a clean kitchen towel, and put it back on the pan. It’ll look like Norma Desmond does Le Creuset, and you’ll thank me for it. As Grandma Kay taught me, the towel keeps the excess moisture from dripping back onto the rice and making it mushy. Because again, mushy rice is godawful.
While the rice cooks, sauté those mushrooms. If you need pointers on the procedure, the inimitable Alton Brown does almost as good a job at elucidating the procedure as my mother once did for me. In the event that you’re feeling like a total food whore, carry through his recipe in its entirety and use those mushrooms here. You will not be sorry. Hold the mushrooms in a large, heat-proof bowl as you go.
Gently fluff rice with a fork. Not a spoon, ladle, knife, paddle or other any other such nonsense, but a fork. A carving fork is best, but any fork will do in a pinch. First run the fork gently around the perimeter of the pan. Then, as though you were folding egg whites, move the fork gently (ever so gently!) from the perimeter to the middle, coming down into the rice as you move to the middle and lifting up from the center. Do this three times, then turn the rice into the bowl with your mushrooms.
To the bowl with the rice and mushrooms, add the bell pepper and feta. Stir gently, still with the fork!, to combine.
Assemble the salad by first laying down a bed of lettuce. Top it with rice mixture, spoon dressing over, and garnish with olives. A nice glass of rosé, and you’re laughing.