Spring Forward

March 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was bracing myself for some kind of existential crisis when I turned 30 a year and a half ago. It never came. Quite the contrary: life as a 30-something has never been better. I’m more confident in who I am and what I want and willing to use my time more wisely in accordance with this. I’ve dabbled in enough things to know when something really isn’t worth persistence and when the interim teeth-gritting is worth the end result. I also have a bit more urgency in the face of life. This has stirred up intense wanderlust on the one hand, and provoked the creation of something of a bucket list of activities on the other. One instant result: a season of learning to ski (or, as it eventually turned out, snowboard in my case), a bruised arse and ego, and a renewed respect for fearless 4 year olds.

Now we all know that the reason skiing is so attractive as an activity can be attributed to one (hypenated) word alone: apres-ski. Think post-exercise altitude-fueled hunger satisfied by a roaring log fire, brandied hot chocolate and rounds of pungent melting cheese. Quite the cozy scene. And quite the opposite from the picture heading up this post which is of a zesty, bright wehani rice and citrus salad. Yet without the former I would never have discovered the latter. Even the best of us start to tire of the cheese and bacon-laden ski resort meals after a while and need something to cleanse the palate, regroup, and reinvigorate the appetite for the next round of fondue. And the Pyramid Bistro in Aspen turned out to be the perfect place for this pick-me-up. Nestled into the top floor of the utterly charming (and dangerously good) Explore Bookshop, the cafe specializes in whole-food oriented dishes, like an amazing kale and shredded butternut squash salad topped with bean-cakes which I washed down with a cucumber and coconut smoothie and some homemade 7-grain bread served with a shocking-green chard pesto. I would transport the cafe to San Francisco in a flash and eat there at least once a week, it was that good. Instead, I went for the next best option and bought a copy of Lorna Sass’s Whole Grains which the cafe had sitting out on a shelf as an exemplary source of inspiration. It has very quickly become one of my go-to books for inventive, nourishing, attractive dishes. The book starts out with a treasury of information on cooking and storing grains of all kinds, from amaranth to wheat berries, which alone is worth the cover price. The second half is packed full of delights building on this foundation, with highlights including a rye berry and smoked trout salad, bulgar and lamb soup, and a brown rice and peanut salad with soy and ginger marinated flank steak, which I fully intended to blog but didn’t stand a chance of surviving long enough to be photographed. I’ll be quite happy to sacrifice myself to making it again soon enough, just for you…

In the meantime this wehani rice and three citrus salad is far from a consolation prize. It’s an unashamed taste-bud titillator, making for a refreshing lunch or a prime candidate for the first course of a larger dinner, especially as it’s so darned pretty. Yet I have to admit that I hesitated before making this salad because of the always off-putting moniker of “fusion” levied at it in the recipe headnotes. Do not fear: the Southwestern pinch of chipotle is what makes this dish so brilliant, gently bringing the citrus high notes back to earth. And if fusion means taking in a bite of soft-as-butter avocado along with the chewy rice and crunchy pumpkin seeds, then sign me up as a fusionist for sure. The original recipe suggests just regular oranges for the salad, but I went for a triple threat citrus mix since we’re fully in the season for it right now and I’ve been looking for an excuse to bring home handfuls of the jewel-like kumquats that are currently popping out on market stalls. They pep up the level of tartness alongside the naval orange juice in the dressing, while slices of blood oranges fan out on top of the dish with their sanguineous flashes of colour. The end result turns out to be the perfect porthole from winter to spring, fully appropriate for this day of vernal equinox. Bring it on.

Three Citrus and Rice Salad
Adapted from Whole Grains: Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass

Yields 4 appetizer sized portions, or 2-3 lunches

2 cups cooked Wehani, Chinese Black Rice, or long grain brown rice, slightly warm or at room temperature (see note below)
1 cup diced and peeled Naval or Valencia orange segments (1/2 – 1 orange)
1 cup diced and peeled blood orange segments (1 small blood orange)
4-5 kumquats, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from about 1/2 orange)
1/4 cup raw unsalted pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tsps grated orange zest
1/4 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/8 tsp ground chipotle
1 ripe Hass avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
4 large lettuce cups or leaves

*Rice notes: Wehani is a red-brown basmati style rice, with some similarities to wild rice. Cook it by rinsing one cup of grains then combining with 2 cups of boiling water and simmering, covered, for about 40-45 minutes until tender. Remove from the heat, fluff with a fork, then cover the pan with a tea towel and replace the lid and leave to steam for a further 5-10 minutes before using. This will yield approximately 3 cups of cooked rice. If you can’t get hold of Wehani rice, which is likely outside of the US since it’s proprietary to Lundberg Farms, you can use Chinese black rice, wild rice or simply long grain brown rice as needed.

In a bowl, combine the rice, orange and blood orange segments (reserving some for decoration), kumquats, orange juice, pumpkin seeds, orange zest, salt and chipotle. Gently fold in the avocado chunks. Taste for seasoning and add a touch more salt if needed.

Place a lettuce cup on each plate and spoon the salad into the cup. Garnish with orange segments if you like.

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