Whole grains are not what I intuitively reach for in the kitchen — despite my stocked pantry. The answer is grain salads, an easy way to use whole grains and explore new ones.
Room-temperature salads are great for picnics, potlucks, desk lunches, day hikes and captive dinners on the plane. They won't suffer being made in advance — the grains will absorb more flavor as they sit.
Creating a great grain salad can be organized into four key components:
Any grain can lay the foundation: wheat berries, farro, rye berries, sorghum, quinoa, millet, rice, teff, amaranth. Each offers a distinct flavor and texture, so you could swap the grains and make a new result every time. Use less water, so grains end up pearly and distinct. Grains that have taken up too much water will not absorb dressing as well and can lead to a waterlogged salad.
Vegetables, herbs and proteins can be a repository for whatever seasonal bounty you have on hand: slivered asparagus, radish wedges and fresh peas in the spring; tomatoes and zucchini in summer; whatever fresh herbs.
They also work with year-round supermarket offerings, such as carrots and scallions. Depending on age and freshness, the vegetables can be served raw or can be dunked in boiling water for a minute or two, which will leave them firm but diminish signs of crisper-drawer fatigue. You can also grill or roast them.
Proteins can include lentils, beans, baked tofu, cheese or hard-cooked eggs. If you eat meat, add shredded bits from leftovers, or flaked smoked fish.
Use a bottled dressing, or make your own. Because of the earthy taste of grains, I prefer a more acidic-tasting dressing. A vinaigrette or lemon dressing pairs well with grains and accompaniments. Prepared condiments are easy routes to extra dimension. Fresh, best-quality oils are important to use here, because any flaws will be impossible to conceal.
Toasted nuts or seeds, olives, capers, toasted seaweed, cheeses, avocado, chopped dried fruit are optional, but a good idea. They add texture and extra flavor, making each bite more interesting. Try combinations of two or three per salad.
Whatever the actual ingredients turn out to be, you're always striving for a balance of texture and flavor. The proportions of each component will vary, depending on what you want to emphasize, but a salad composed of equal parts grains and vegetables by volume, with perhaps half as much protein and a modicum of accessory ingredients is a sound guide.
A few notes on assembly:
• Make sure your moist ingredients are dry before combining with the dressing or you will dilute the salad's flavor.
• If you don’t serve the salad right away, hold ingredients you want to prevent from wilting on top of the salad before folding them in.
• Sturdy leafy greens can be nice to combine in advance, giving the dressing time to soften them.
• Flavors are fullest at room temperature, so leave a refrigerated salad out on the counter to warm for an hour or so before serving.
And now, you take it from here.