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How to Make a Great Whole Grain Salad + 9 Recipes

Posted: October 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Lunch Recipes, Whole Grains | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Whole grains are a perfect choice for the lunch box, because they are cheap, filling, and best of all, they hold up well until you get a chance to eat.

One of the best habits you can adopt to streamline your cooking is batch cooking a new whole grain every week to make into salads, add heft to soups, or serve as a side to any meal. I like cooking my grains in a good flavored stock or well–salted water to add a little depth. At the same time, I’ll roast a pan of seasonal vegetables. For those of you with a little less time on your hands, there are also some great ready to eat and frozen grains on the market* (see below).

My favorite way to prepare them? The Whole Grain Salad. Essentially, I pick any whole grain (and there are so many to choose from), add in “the fixins” and toss with a vinaigrette, a handful of torn fresh herbs, and salt and pepper. Your grains will hold up splendidly until lunch, and the longer your salad sits, the better the flavors will infuse into each bite.

Many of the salads I make have decidedly “mature” flavor profiles, but these can be great salads for a kid’s lunchbox as well.

Things to think about: to achieve your ideal grain salad, you want a range of textures and flavors. I like something chewy, something crunchy and something soft. As for flavor, I like something earthy, nutty, green, sweet and tart. And sometimes I like a little punch of heat: either from red pepper flakes or hot sauce.

The Formula: the good thing is that these salads are flexible. You can make them as big or as small as you need. Usually, for a lunch box I serve ½ to 1 cup of whole grain as a portion. I like my salads on the more vegetable laden side, so I’ll add about a cup of vegetables per person, but ½ cup is probably more reasonable. The dressing amount is up to you – you want to add a small amount at first, and toss your salad and taste – if you need more, add a small amount, toss and taste. I usually add my salt and pepper to the dressing, but sometimes it’ll need more salt if it tastes a little bit flat. Sometimes I’ll pack a little lemon wedge to brighten it up before I eat.

The Grains: some of the best grains for lunches are the ones that are firmer in texture when cooked: barley, wheat berry, farro. Bulgur makes a softer salad, millet and quinoa are even softer. I also use a lot of brown rice, wild rice and Israeli cous-cous (not technically a grain, but a tiny round pasta) as the base to my salads. (Technically quinoa, wild rice, and israeli cous cous aren’t true grains, but we use them in the same way).

The Fixin’s: here you can go wild, but typically I like to add seasonal vegetables (particularly roasted vegetables, but I like a mix of cooked and raw vegetables), some sort of bean, fresh herbs, and cheese. Sometimes I’ll add a small handful of nuts or dried fruit as well.

The Dressing and Herbs: this is where you get some flexibility to really change the flavor profile of your dish. You can choose a soy-ginger marinade, or maybe a Californian Green Goddess dressing, or a citrus vinaigrette. Most often I just use a basic vinaigrette of one part vinegar to three parts oil. If you feel uneasy making your own dressings, there is no shame here in using your favorite bottled dressing, (but making your own is cheaper and more flavorful). Don’t be afraid to add a good amount of fresh herbs, I like to think of them as a vegetable rather than just a garnish. Green is good!

9  Great Whole Grain Salads:

These aren’t traditional recipes, but combinations that I like and start with. I typically use a few cups of grain (but sometimes I double it). Don’t be afraid to mix and match your grains, or use multiple grains at once. I might swap out the vegetable, add some chopped egg or crispy bacon or tofu (although, you have to be more careful about how long you keep them in your lunch box when you add those). Usually I keep them room temperature, but if I’m eating them at home for lunch, I might re-heat them on the stove and eat them warm and call it a “pilaf”. For those with a little less time on your hands, you can use pre-cooked grains (*see below), frozen vegetables, and bottled dressing, and these will still taste pretty darn good.

Farro Salad with Tomatoes, Basil and Feta: take 2 cups of cooked farro, and toss with a chopped ripe tomato (I find that cherry tomatoes work well in winter time, when you can’t find sweet ripe heirlooms). Add a handful of roughly chopped or torn basil, crumble in some feta cheese, and toss with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Not Quite Tabbouleh Salad: take 2 cups cooked bulgur wheat and mix with a cup or so of chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Add a handful of chopped parsley, some cherry tomatoes, a small chopped shallot, a sprinkle of cumin, and some lemon vinaigrette.

Greek Wheat Berry Salad: take 2 cups of cooked wheat berries, and toss with 1 medium cucumber, chopped. Add a small handful of chopped dill, a ½ cup of yogurt, and the juice and zest of a lemon. (You might want to try half the lemon juice, but I like it quite tart). You can also toss in some feta and pine nuts if you’d like to gild the lily.

Barley Salad with Broccoli, Blue Cheese and Walnuts: take 2 cups of cooked barley, add 2 cups of roasted (or steamed) broccoli, cut into bite size pieces. Add crumbles of a strong blue cheese, some toasted walnuts, and toss with balsamic vinaigrette.

Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn Salad: take 2 cups of cooked quinoa, add ½ cup of black beans, and ½ cup fresh (or frozen) corn kernels, and ½ cup chopped red bell pepper. Add some chopped red onion and avocado (if you like them), a dash of cumin, and top with lime vinaigrette. Kick it up with some hot sauce, or a few spoonfuls of salsa if you’d like.

Brown Rice, Asparagus and Edamame Salad: take 2 cups of brown rice, and mix with a cup of asparagus, ½ cup of edamame (or broad beans, or peas), a good handful of torn mint and a lemony vinaigrette. This one is good with bacon.

Wild Rice, Cranberry and Nut Salad: take 2 cups of cooked wild rice, add in 1/2 cup dried cranberries, ¼ cup toasted hazelnuts (or walnuts, or almonds) and toss with a citrus vinaigrette. (Orange juice and zest is stellar in this).

Bulgur with Eggplant, Pistachios and Mint: take 2 cups of cooked bulgur, toss in a cup of roasted (or grilled) cubed eggplant. Toss in a handful of pistachios and some freshly torn mint. Toss with a lemon vinaigrette. You can also add in a couple of black olives and feta, and you’ll be a happy camper.

Israeli Couscous and Cauliflower Salad: take 2 cups of cooked Israeli couscous, and add two cups of roughly chopped roasted cauliflower. Toss with fresh parsley and a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, with a tablespoon of capers and a few chopped anchovy filets.

A note on precooked grains: I’ve long since made it a habit to cook batches of grains at the beginning of the week. I’ll often freeze small portions of cooked grains to reheat. As this isn’t practical for everyone, I’ve also spent a lot of time tasting pre-packaged grains (both shelf stable and frozen), and find many of them to be really good. Trader Joe’s has some really good options (frozen organic brown rice, frozen organic jasmine rice, fully cooked wild rice, and their multi-grain pilaf). My other favorite is a company called Village Harvest which I tried several years ago at the Fancy Food Show and fell in love with. They recently sent me some of their frozen whole grain samples (it pays to write about companies you love, I tell you) – and what sets them apart is the flash freezing which really preserves the grain, and their combinations: my favorites being the Farro & Red Rice, and Wheatberry & Barley.

Warm Salad for a Rainy Day

Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Balanced Lunch, Lunch Recipes | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

I wish I could say that I’ve been more productive today, but the rain and gray skies have kept me in the house this morning. I truly don’t mind the rain, but Fridays I like to take a long walk and get in any errands, and unfortunately this weather makes that a little difficult. I got up this morning and drank a cup of coffee, swaddled myself on the couch, and started getting some work done.

The best part of the morning was calling my oldest friend Sara to wish her a happy birthday! We’ve been friends since the age of five and love being silly with each other. She’s spent the week celebrating her birthday in Chi-caaaa-go. She’s already been to the recording of this weeks “Wait Wait….Don’t tell me!” on NPR, and is planning on going to a delightfully odd performance at Redmoon Theater and a dinner at the vegetarian Chicago Diner. I wish I were there with her!

hot coffee.JPG

After finishing my coffee (which took several hours, and, admittedly, a midway point microwave to rewarm it) I started fretting about lunch when I realized not only was I starving, but I hadn’t actually eaten breakfast yet. Sometimes it happens…

I have a lot of salad greens in my fridge, but it seemed too cold for a salad, so I did what I do when I either a) have leftover salad greens threatening to go bad, or b) just want something warm and green, and started on putting together a warm salad.

Yes, that’s right, warm salad. Trust me on this one.

I first put the greens in a colander inside a pyrex to soak. I had some fresh farm romaine lettuce, and a whole lot of cilantro that needed to be used.


I then put a pan on the stovetop, added a splash of olive oil, and started warming a shallot and some garlic that I roughly chopped as the base of my flavor. It’s always a good idea to start things with garlic and shallot (or onions), as they really bring a lot of flavor to a dish.


I had a little less than a cup of chickpeas left, so I added those in as well. I let those go for a few minutes to heat through and get a little bit browned.


Then I …. wait for it … dumped all of the lettuce into the pan over everything. That’s right, I cooked my lettuce, just like you would any sort of leafy green.


I cooked them just until they wilted down, and then tossed in a little bit of balsamic vinaigrette, and worked it all around.

I dumped it all onto a plate, and then topped it with about an ounce of crumbled Humboldt Fog Cheese – a really delicious goat milk cheese made in Northern California by Cypress Grove Chevre. If you can ever get your hands on this stuff, it’s pretty delicious with a great tang…


The result was warm, green, and satisfying. Success!!

Success #2: The SUN is PEEPING OUT!!!! Well, on one side of the apartment at least, the other side looks ominous!!

Do you have any experiences with warm salads? Other than the poached egg, lardon, and frisee, I think there are all too few of these! I’m always looking for new ideas!

Sunny Eggs with Spinach, Cheese and Salsa

Posted: February 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Lunch Recipes | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Hooray for productivity! Laundry done, dishes loaded, posts written, some cookbook research done. I was going to go to the gym this afternoon, but the car went to the shop for a check-up because of the check engine light, and it’s not going to come home until later, so I’ll do some walking instead, and hope it doesn’t rain down on me!

I’m going to a wine tasting with some food friends tonight at Solano Cellars in Berkeley, so I made a light lunch to balance things out.

Let me introduce you to this useful product: pre-peeled organic garlic cloves from Christopher Ranch. I hate to admit it, but I’m a sucker for pre-peeled garlic. I use a lot of garlic, and saving even five minutes that it takes peeling five cloves makes quick meals a lot easier. I also have whole garlic heads in my kitchen, but this stuff is great in a pinch.


In a pan, I put a teaspoon of olive oil, some minced garlic (about four small cloves worth), and three large cups of baby spinach. I grated in some fresh pepper, and gave it a good stir.


I let it wilt just slightly, and then added in two farm eggs, from pastured free-range chickens. A good quality egg is really important – the flavor is incomparable to the stuff you pick up in the supermarket. Even more than a week old, these eggs are about 20 times better because of the grass, bugs, and other goodies that the chickens get to feast on.


Once the eggs are just set, I added an ounce of grated Cabot pepperjack, covered the lid, and turned down off the heat until the cheese just melted.

eggs topped with cheese.JPG

Once it melted, I gently transfered it to a plate, and then topped it with some fresh salsa!


On a hungrier day, I might eat it with toast, or a tortilla. Just look at that yolk!!


A few more errands, and then I’m off to BART, taking as roundabout way as I can to get in my 10,000 steps, and maybe even a few more for good measure.

There are rumors that we are going to have a stop at Gordo taqueria for a pre-wine snack, and maybe to the Xocolate Bar for some chocolate zen experience. It’s going to be fun!!

Healthy Sandwich Ideas

Posted: August 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Lunch Recipes, Sandwich recipes | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »
Photo: Kasiaflickr

As a child, I never ate sandwiches. Over the years though, as I started making my own lunches every day, I realized the value of the sandwich as a lunch box savior. These sandwiches are just a start to expand your range of sandwich possibilities – here are several healthy sandwich options to get you going!
It starts with the bread – plain bread alternatives
: Pita bread, tortillas, dinner rolls, naan bread, challah bread, bagels, english muffins, pain de mie, rye bread, flatbread, butter lettuce leaves – don’t be afraid to branch out! If you are looking for optimum healthy bread options, try picking a bread with several grams of fiber per slice, and whole grains – preferably ones you can actually see in the bread.

Good Spread options: pesto, hummus, olive tapenade as a basis for any sandwich – just add vegetables. To add some punch, try some whole grain dijon mustard (Maille brand is a favorite), or a thin spread of harissa – a north african chili paste.

Textural additions: try adding raisins, granola, sesame seeds, pickles, cornichon pickles, chocolate chips, popcorn or potato crisps – if you are eating the sandwich right away.

Omnivore sandwiches:
– pep up your chicken or tuna salad with some lemon juice, paprika, and chopped onion
– egg salad and with steamed or grilled asparagus on baguette or pain de mie
– smoked salmon and cream cheese (sprinkle of dill or capers optional)
– turkey, cream cheese and tomato on a toasted bagel
– bacon and avocado, or bacon, lettuce and tomato
– soft cheese such as brie or goat with grated carrot, coarse salt, and cracked pepper
– hummus and a poached or fried egg
– turkey and cucumber raita on naan bread

Vegan sandwiches (vegetarian addition in brackets):
– (honey), peanut butter, and banana
– banana and chopped dates (ricotta)
– sliced avocado and olive oil with a sprinkle of salt and pepper on rye bread
– hummus and cucumber
– grilled asparagus with lemon vinaigrette and lettuce wraps
– almond butter, strawberry jam, and mango* (thank you Pal’s takeaway!)

Am I missing your favorite sandwiches? What kinds of sandwiches do you love? What sandwiches do your kids love?

Photo: Kasiaflickr
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