Back in my restaurants days, we used to make a delicious summer salad of white rice with peas, shredded carrots and radishes dressed with a dill mayonnaise. It was tasty and filling but, in retrospect, I can’t say it was terribly nutritious. But I figured there had to be a way to make it lighter, and there was.
I started by replacing the white rice with farro. An ancient and nutritious form of whole wheat from Italy, farro boasts a pleasingly nutty taste and a slightly chewy texture. It’s not as popular here as it should be because too many home cooks think that it is complicated and/or time-consuming to make. Neither is true.
What is true is that the prep time for farro depends largely on the variety you buy. There are three kinds sold in America — whole, semi-pearled and pearled. All three tend to be labeled simply “farro,” though the instructions on the back of the package are more specific.
Whole farro — bran and husk included — is the most nutritious and takes the longest to cook. Pearled farro — with the bran and husk removed — takes the least time. In any case, just follow the instructions on the back of the package and plan ahead. If you cook a big batch during the weekend, you can freeze it in 2-, 3- or 4-cup portions, then use just what you need during the week.
I retired the peas in the original recipe in favor of edamame. Peas are plenty nutritious, but edamame really jack up the protein content. Steamed in the pod, then sprinkled with salt — simple and delicious — edamame are a staple appetizer in Japanese restaurants. Most grocers offer both shelled and in-the-pod varieties (check the freezer aisle). For this recipe, you’ll want the shelled version. They boil up in about 5 minutes.
I’ve retained the shredded carrots and the radishes from the original recipe, but I’ve ditched the full-fat mayonnaise in favor of ranch dressing. Thanks to its buttermilk base, ranch dressing is one of those magical ingredients that is at once full of flavor and low in calories. I partnered the buttermilk with some of the usual suspects: a bit of oil, a bit of low-fat mayonnaise, and some garlic and fresh herbs. Then, I kicked in a twist of my own, chopped cucumber, which adds a fresh flavor.
The salad as a whole also is pretty versatile. If you have carnivores coming for dinner, you can bulk it up with some chicken or shrimp. I’d be content with a sprinkling of feta, but I know The Husband — like so many guys — would appreciate something more substantial.Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows.