Eat or be eaten. Yes, it’s one of the cardinal laws of the wild, but to the regular potluck supper attendee it means something else entirely. Who among us hasn’t arrived late to one of these get-togethers only to find two or three platters which have been scraped clean (our minds begin playing tricks on us as we imagine the mouth-watering dishes these must have been) as well as a bag or two of stale chips, some canned salsa, and a bowl of potato salad that may or may not have been sitting out in the sun too long.
The potluck connoisseur knows to arrive early to stake out the best dishes because, inevitably, there will only be one or two buzz-worthy contenders. For the home cook and regular potluck chef, the pressure is on to select and prepare something falling into that category. Many of us simply punt and load up on deli counter offerings (hey, I’m not judging…I’ve been there). It’s a great strategy if you’re short on time, but that same deli counter offers options that, with just a little advance planning, will have you effortlessly throwing together one of those buzz-worthy dishes the next time you’re invited to a potluck.
Even better, this crowd-pleasing side dish can double as a main course, is vegetarian as well as vegan as long as the optional crumbled feta is served on the side, and holds up on a buffet table so much longer and better than anything coated, stuffed or dressed with mayonnaise. (Just say “no thank you” to salmonella.) It’s got protein. It’s got veggies. It’s got tang and sweet and crunch and yum, too.
Oh — did I mention that the kids can really get into helping make this salad as well? Loads of easy chopping, whisking and mixing, and none of it is done over a flame, with the exception of cooking the grains, which an adult can easily do in advance. And as I’ve said before, if they help make it, chances are they will at least taste it (though that only held true for one of our two kiddos…the parsley in this recipe was the unfortunate deal-breaker, though your kids may be more forgiving).
The game plan goes something like this: cook the grains in the morning or even the night before. Sometime during the day, stop by the deli counter of you favorite grocer for goodies like roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and then swing by the produce aisle for cucumbers, spring onions, parsley and lemons. Grab some feta from the cheese counter on your way to the checkout line and you’re set. Bringing this all together takes no time at all once you’re back in the kitchen.
If you took our advice and made beef and wheat berry sliders, you may even have some wheat berries left over. This is a great way to use them, introducing even more whole grain, along with the quinoa, into your diet. I love the nuttiness they bring to this dish. If you have some leftover crumbled feta from the sliders use it here too. We’re always finding inventive ways to use ingredients from previous dishes, and this particular salad is case in point. The saltiness of the feta is a true complement to all the flavors here.
And a final note about our lemons. Yes, lemons. We were lucky enough to receive a care package recently from my uncle and aunt in California loaded up with just-picked lemons, limes and blood oranges fresh from their back-yard orchard (he’ll get a kick out of the fact I called it an orchard, I’m sure). We sacrificed one of those lovely lemons to make the dressing for this salad and I must say that it went toward a very nobel cause. The lemon juice and olive oil dressing, along with some fresh-grated lemon zest, bring a wonderful brightness to this salad. The ingredients here definitely — and intentionally — pay homage to a traditional greek salad, but the lemon juice and olive oil dressing marries so much more elegantly with the grains than a vinegar-based dressing ever would.
If you’ve got a potluck on the calendar — or even a big family gathering (happens a lot this time of year!) — this recipe and a good deli counter will elevate you into the echelons of potluck acclaim. You’re welcome, by the way.
Brown Rice, Wheat Berry and Quinoa Salad with Cucumber, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Roasted Red Peppers
1 cup wheat berries
2 cups short-grain brown rice
1 cup quinoa, well rinsed to remove the bitter white powder that settles on the grains after processing
1 English or seedless cucumber, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup of loosely-packed sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed), covered with hot water to soften them, and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 roasted red peppers, drained and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 – 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 cup of Kalamata olives, sliced in half lengthwise
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice from one large or two small lemons
6 tablespoons olive oil
Generous pinch Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Begin by toasting the wheat berries in a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Use a mesh spatter guard or loose-fitting lid to keep them from popping out of the pan and agitate the pan frequently to redistribute them and keep them from burning. They should be toasty after 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off the flame and set the wheat berries to the side to cool.
This is one recipe where using a rice cooker offers a big advantage, but you don’t necessarily need one. Combine the wheat berries, brown rice and quinoa in a rice cooker with enough water to cook 4 cups of grain (the amount of water needed varies slightly according to which brand of rice cooker you have) and turn on the rice cooker, allowing it to run through a cycle. If cooking on the stove top, place all the grains in a large sauce pan or pot with 8 cups of water, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat immediately to a slow simmer. Cook, covered, for between 45 – 50 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure there is enough water in the pot to keep the grains from scorching. When both the rice and the wheat berries are tender (both will have a little “tooth” to them, but shouldn’t be crunchy), turn off the heat and allow the grains to sit in the pot, covered, for another 5 minutes. If there is any water left in the pot, drain it off before proceeding.
Make the lemon juice-olive oil dressing while you wait for the cooked grains to cool down enough to proceed. In a small mixing bowl, vigorously whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil with a generous pinch of Kosher salt and a grind or two of fresh black pepper. The dressing will emulsify as you whisk and thicken to the consistency of heavy cream.
When the grains have cooled and are barely warm to the touch, transfer them to a large mixing bowl with the cucumber, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, spring onion slices, Kalamata olive halves, parsley, and lemon zest. Mix well and begin to incorporate the dressing, stirring the mixture continuously as you add the dressing so that it coats everything very well.
Season to taste with additional Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper before serving. If you wish to add crumbled feta cheese to your salad, you may mix it throughout the dish along with all the other ingredients or you may choose to serve it on the side, for guests to sprinkle over their salads as they see fit. When seasoning your salad, keep in mind that feta cheese is quite salty and you may not need as much salt if you are serving the salad with the cheese.
Serves: 10 – 12*
*To make a smaller batch, just halve the ingredients and use half as much dressing. This salad is also quite forgiving in terms of ratios. If you really like cucumbers, add more. Hate olives? Leave them out. Have some artichoke hearts sitting around? Throw them in too. At the end of the day, this dish should be about half grains and half veg.
Kid rating: three-and-a-half stars. This is not, I should warn you, the type of dish that most kids are going to look at and go “give me a big plate of THAT!” But between our two Stout Sprouts, Daughter 1 finished her plate with some moderate complaints about the parsley. Daughter 2 refused to touch it. But other kids who’ve tried it like it. I think it’s a matter of tasting — once they’ve had a couple of bites, they realize it’s actually pretty good!
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars, which, I think, is actually plenty to be a buzz-worthy dish. Some people (your foodie friends and those potluck regulars) are going to give it five stars and ask you for the recipe. Several will think it looks to much like tabbouleh salad (with which, inevitably, they had a bad experience back in college) and avoid it. But hey, those in that second group can always eat those stale chips and jarred salsa!