Insalata di riso, or rice salad, is another staple of Italian summertime cooking. It’s quick and very easy to make, it can be made ahead—in fact, it only gets better after a day in the fridge—and it’s light on the stomach. And it lends itself to variations limited only to your imagination.
I’ve already written a post on my favorite rice salad, a seafood based version with tunafish, anchovies and some typical condiments. This year, let me present a landlubber’s version that features—believe it or not!—hot dogs, or the Italian equivalent that goes by the German name of würstel. And while last year’s rice salad was very grown up and almost elegant, this year’s salad is colorful and ‘fun’, with tastes that are usually a big hit with kids of all ages.
Serves 4 people
- 200g (1-1/2 cups) raw rice
- 2-3 hot dogs or German-style wieners, thinly sliced (and/or cooked ham, cubed)
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) Emmenthal, Gruyère, Fontina or other Swiss cheese, cut into small cubes
- Mixed pickled and/or fresh vegetables and/or condiments of your choice, cut into small pieces, to taste (see Notes)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
- Chopped parsley or other herbs
Boil the rice in abundant, well-salted water just until al dente, as you would pasta. The time will vary according to the rice (see instructions) but regular long grain rice should take about 15 minutes or so. As soon as the rice is done, run it under cold water in a colander to stop the cooking. Drain well for a minute or two, gently turning the rice once or twice with a rubber spatula to help it drain and prevent sticking.
While the rice is cooking, slice the hot dogs and cut up the cheese, along with the various veggies and other condiments of your choice (see below). If your wieners don’t come fully cooked, then simmer them before your slice them.
Turn the rice into a large bowl, then add the hot dog slices (and ham, if using), cheese and veggies and condiments, mixing gingerly with a spatula. Season with a drizzle of olive oil, and a bit salt and pepper. Mix again, taste and repeat, mixing gently each time, until the salad is seasoned as you like it. Make sure not to overdo it with the salt—the rice should already be seasoned as it cooked, and the condiments are already salty.
The salad can be eaten immediately, but it improves when made ahead and kept in the fridge, ideally at least an hour before and even overnight. Let the salad sit out for a few minutes to take the chill off before eating.
The hot dogs can be any kind you like, although ‘German style wieners’ that you can sometimes find are probably closest to the kind you would find in Italy; it is very common to substitute cooked ham, cut into cubes, for some or even all of the hot dog slices, which gives the salad a bit more panache.
The amount and variety of vegetable and other condimenti you want to add to your salad along with the würstel and cheese are up to you, but very typical choices include roasted red peppers (or pickled red peppers, called ‘pimentos’ here in the US), olives, cornichons (aka gherkins) and pickled baby onions, all of which I added to this batch, along with capers which, for me, are a must in any rice salad. I also like to add some chopped celery for a bit of crunchiness and, to balance all the strong flavors, a bit of astringency. But you can use your own imagination to create your own version of this dish. Chopped carrot, sliced cherry tomatoes, scallions, pickled cauliflower, eggplant or mushrooms sott’olio and blanched frozen peas are just some of the possible additional vegetables people like to add. Some add some chopped hard-boiled egg as well. And some Italians even like to add that most American of ingredients—corn kernels—to their salad. Fresh chopped parsley and/or other herbs are optional as well. The choice of condimenti is yours (as are quantities), so you can really put your personal stamp on the salad. In Italy, by the way, rice salad is so popular they sell a ready-made mixture of pickled vegetables especially made for it, which makes things more convenient (if less creative) for the cook.
Rice salads are traditionally dressed only with oil, salt and pepper, but some people like to drizzle just a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice or a bit of white wine vinegar for some ‘zip’. (If you do, however, best to do this just before serving, or the taste will grow overwhelming.) Given the Germanic influence in the dish, a lot of recipes call for a spoonful of mustard—not my thing, personally. And some modern online recipes even call for mayonnaise, something that I never came across when I lived in Italy but would no doubt appeal to many palates here in the US. It does, of course, make the salad a bit heavier.
This is one Italian dish where the fine risotto rices—arborio, Carnaroli and vialone nano—are actually not ideal. In fact you don’t really want short or even medium grain rices at all, as they tend to be ‘sticky’ when cooked. For rice salad you want grains that will keep their shape and stay separate, so you want a longer grain rice. Most any variety will do, but stay away from basmati, which is rather too delicate to stand up to boiling and mixing going on in this recipe. Many Italians use a variety called ribe or even parboiled rice (like the Uncle Ben’s brand here in the US) for making rice salad, since this rice keeps its shape and stays separate practically no matter what you do to it, but as long as you are careful not to overcook the rice, good old fashioned American long grain rice is actually an excellent choice.