Mid-August, when the temperatures climb to tropical heights, is a time when even the enthusiasm of even the most avid cook can begin to wane. Italians often turn to easily prepared dishes that need minimal or no actually cooking. Salads are an obvious choice, and rice salads are a favorite. Not only are they delicious, but they are easy to prepare, adaptable to just about whatever happens to be in the cupboard and can be easily made ahead—which makes them perfect picnic or summer buffet food.
Begin by boiling your rice al dente. It will take anywhere from 10-15 minutes to boil your rice, depending on the variety of rice you use; rice cooks more quickly when boiled in abundant water than for a risotto. Drain the rice in a colander and rinse it quickly under cold water to stop the cooking. Give it a good shake or two to get out all the water and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Then add your choice of condiments from your pantry. My favorite is based on tuna fish, which you add to the boiled rice together with a handful of capers, some chopped gerkins and a handful of olives (green and/or black, as you prefer). I sometimes add some chopped anchovies as well. Some people add even more ingredients, usually pickled onions or pimentos, or both. Today I had some mozzarella on hand, so I chopped that into cubes and added it, too.
Finish off with some chopped parsley for color, a good drizzling of olive oil, salt, pepper and some freshly squeezed lemon juice—just enough to ‘brighten’ the dish. Mix gently but well with a spatula until the ingredients are evenly mixed. (Try not to break up the tuna completely—it’s nicest with little chunks here and there, I find.) You can serve the salad immediately, but it develops flavor if you let it rest for an hour or more.
Rice salad can be made as much as a day ahead—in which case, leave it in the fridge, of course, and take it out about an hour ahead so it returns to room temperature. Before serving, you may want to ‘refresh’ the salad with a bit more oil and lemon juice before serving.
NOTES: And unlike risotto, you can really use just about any kind of rice. Italians often use a slightly lesser grade of rice—called ‘fino‘ rather than a ‘superfino‘ like arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano that you would use for a risotto. These go by the names of ribe or Roma, and you can sometimes find these in specialty shops. You can also use long grained rice if you prefer. In fact, many Itailans use parboiled rice, since it holds its texture well when made ahead. Personally, I rather like sticking with a superfino.
As for measurements, I follow the ‘golden rule’ of 100g of raw rice per person. The amount of condiments really depends on your taste, but for 200-400g of rice I use a small to medium-sized can of tuna, plus about a handful of each of the other ingredients. Just trust your instincts.
Like pasta, there is an almost infinite variety of rice salads—and you can really just make up your own version using whatever suits your fancy. Besides this tuna-based salad, another very popular salad includes—believe it or not—sliced würstel, the German word that Italians use for those little smoked sausages otherwise known as ‘hot dogs’—cubed boiled ham can substitute—usually combined with cubed pieces of swiss cheese, olives and some of those pickled vegetables. Also popular is a completely vegetarian version with mixed pickled vegetables called giardiniera. Or dress your rice with prepared seafood salad from a deli for an insalata di riso marinara. Some halved cherry tomatoes can be added to any of these varieties if you like. And all are finished off with a dressing of olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Feel free to give full rein to your imagination and creativity. Italian cuisine has all sorts of ‘rules’ that Italians take very seriously even if they are often broken—but there is something about summer that makes people want to let their hair down, so why fight the urge?