What is a salad? To the majority of people, including most Beijingers, it definitely involves some sort of slacker lettuce just hanging out for show, letting the more expensive and colourful toppings do all the work for it. Icebergs are particularly delinquent; pale and limp from failing to possess loftier ambitions. "I'll just veg here, thanks (sorry not sorry)."
That description of a salad isn't completely wrong; but it's not right either. My goal for the week is to introduce my dear colleagues to something called: the rice/couscous/grain salad. The beloved Moka Bros. does this well with their "power bowls"; I decided to do it my own way and as a side portion.
I realized some hiccups midway through. If I make a nice rice salad with hearty purple rice, a tossed with bounty of fresh, diced veggie toppings in a dainty side-dish portion, to me it's, "Oh, what a nice little portion of grains and veg!"
To them, it's more like... "Oh, what a meager portion of hard peasant-rice, served cold."
You can see their point, right?
But I'm pushing on with this no-lettuce crusade, for a number of virtues:
1. Aren't we all sick of a bowl of cold lettuce with more expensive flotsam skimming the surface?
2. Swap cheap lettuce for quality leaves (spinach, rocket, pea shoots, kale), quality vegetables and protein-rich beans, pulses and seeds.
3. Especially good for the winter: filling grains, beans, pulses. Starch, basically. But healthy starch. Chinese people, especially northerners, love filling; so they love starch.
4. It's different.
So I whizzed up two "grain salads"; one Moroccan-inspired and one with Southwestern flavours (not as in Yunnan, China; I mean more like Arizona, USA).
The Moroccan-spiced one became instantly more welcoming with the addition of baby carrots, simply halved; beats cafeteria-style carrot coins and their cooked-to-death sob story. The spices are toasty thanks to a sizzling oil bath and a good combo of aromatics.
It's getting late and another morning of grocery shopping and kitchen experimenting awaits. I'm assuming these days that you all are capable cooks, such is the foodie decade we live in. In the concise, relaxed and non-patronizing style of this wonderful book, The Flavour Thesaurus (and the sleep-deprived state I'm in, I must admit), here is your guide to putting these salads together. I hope these relaxed instructions will also enable you to own the recipe; flip the ratio of carrots to quinoa if that floats your boat; add more lemon juice if you like it tart, less cilantro if it's too sharp.
Moroccanish Quinoa Salad with grilled chicken, fresh apricots, almonds, cilantro and a Moroccan spiced oil.
Prepare the Moroccan spiced oil: place in a metal bowl 1/2 tsp each of coriander powder and ginger powder; plus 1/4 tsp each of paprika powder, coarse black pepper, cumin and cinnamon; heat 4 Tbsp of olive oil in a pan until almost smoking, then tip in into the bowl of spices to sizzle it. Toss a few teaspoons of this oil (you'll have extra) a healthy pinch of salt and some lemon juice with cooked quinoa, which you can boil with some diced red or white onion if you wish. Add grilled chicken slices and halved baby carrots which have been roasted with olive oil and salt. Add diced fresh apricots, cilantro leaves and toasted, flaked almonds. Hop on magic carpet to Marrakesh.
Southwesternish Purple Rice Salad with black beans, cherry tomatoes, sweet corn and avocado
Toss cooked purple rice with a blitzed dressing of cilantro, lime juice and plenty of salt. Add sliced cherry tomatoes, diced avocado, corn kernels, black beans; top with toasted pumpkin seeds. For a creamy dressing, use a sour cream and cilantro mix.