Monday, June 18, 2012

Slacker Gourmet Formula: Pasta/Grain Salad

Well, more than a year has passed since my last Slacker Gourmet post. Oops. I could make all sorts of excuses about buying a house, and job changes, and blah blah blah, but instead, I'll just refer you to the "Slacker" portion of the blog title, and just go from there.

As a UI Developer by trade, creating web page templates is a big part of my day-to-day life - a basic structure for a page, filled in with different content, depending on a particular database call. For a large site with hundreds of thousands of pages, templating is completely necessary, otherwise we'd be reinventing the wheel over and over again.

But what does that have to do with cooking? Well, as I postulated in my Fondue Theory post, the creation of a basic formula (or template) for a type of dish makes it easy (and nearly foolproof) to implement nearly infinite variations, limited only by your own imagination. Some basic knowledge of complementary flavors is certainly helpful, but I'll happily make some suggestions to get you started.

My Pasta/Grain Salad formula has been a couple of years in development. Its roots are in Lemony Couscous with Chickpeas, which I've made a shockingly large number of times. However, as a Slacker Gourmet, I crave variety - no matter how easy and tasty something is, I will get sick of it after eating it enough times.

Enter the formula. As long as everything stays in the same basic proportions, there is no reason that nearly every component can't be swapped out for something else in the same basic family (black beans instead of chickpeas - yes; M&Ms instead of olives - not so much). This is where that general idea of complementary flavors will come in handy.

And now... the magic formula!

Quinoa salad (Project 365: 86/365)

Pasta/Grain Salad
Serves 4-6 as a main dish, 8-10 as a side dish
Adapted from Lemony Couscous with Chickpeas

  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked pasta/grain
  • Enough water to cook the pasta/grain
  • 1/4 cup citrus juice or other acidic liquid (vinegar is untested; will probably need less)
  • 1 tablespoon citrus zest, if using citrus juice
  • 3 tablespoons high-quality oil (extra-virgin olive oil is probably best in most cases)
  • 1 14oz can of beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 to 1 cup of something briny, like olives, capers, artichoke hearts, rinsed (the stronger the flavor, the less you need)
  • 1/8 to 1/4 cup of something crunchy, like nuts, seeds, wasabi peas, freeze-dried edamame (though the latter two will soften up the longer the salad sits)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped herbs and/or scallions
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta/grain according to package directions; let cool. Chop or slice the briny component if it needs it. Whisk together the oil, acidic liquid, and zest (if using). If using nuts, toast in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes, moving them constantly with a wooden spoon, until lightly browned and fragrant (as soon as you smell them, get them off the heat). Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.

What's so amazing about this salad? Well, it's freakin' delicious. You can make a huge batch and eat it for a week (it keeps wonderfully in the fridge). Depending on the starch component you choose, you don't even need to heat up the kitchen to cook it (see this post for Slacker Gourmet-approved easy starch cooking).

And since it's that time of year, I'd be remiss if I didn't say how great it is for summer potlucks: there's no mayo or dairy to spoil in the heat, and it can easily accommodate special diets and allergies without sacrificing flavor. Gluten allergy? Use gluten-free pasta, rice or quinoa. Vegetarian/vegan? You're already all set as-is! Nut allergy? Leave 'em out - they're not a deal-breaker.

"Okay, okay, I'm sold!" you say. "But, I need some inspiration for the flavor combos... help me out here!"

Flavor combo Pasta/grain Acidic liquid Oil Beans Briny Crunch Herbs
Mediterranean * Quinoa** Lemons EVOO Chickpeas Kalamata olives Slivered almonds Parsley
Italian Orzo or farro Lemons EVOO Cannellini beans Black olives Pine nuts Basil
Mexican Rice Limes EVOO or canola Black beans Black olives Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) Cilantro and scallions
Moroccan Couscous Oranges EVOO Chickpeas Oil-cured black olives Pistachios Mint
* Pictured above.
** Yes, I know quinoa is technically a seed.

Want to mix it up more? Go ahead and throw some raisins in the Moroccan variation, some feta in the Mediterranean variation, or avocado in the Mexican variation (though it may not keep as long with avocado). Just keep those flavors complementary, and you can't go wrong!

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