As summer slips into autumn, it would not do to let it pass without visiting a warm weather standard that straddles the bridge between the seasons: curried rice salad.
Unlike pasta, leftover rice is perfect for recycling in a salad: while pasta often turns gummy and flabby when cold, rice holds its shape, remains firm and yet tender, and because its surface starches “set,” the grains don’t clump together but remain distinct and separate.
Just about anything can go into rice salad, from the usual chopped onion and celery to leftover seafood and chicken, but when the vinaigrette is seasoned with curry spices, and raisins and toasted nuts are added to the mix, it comfortably bridges this difficult transitional time between summer and fall, when it’s still too warm for heftier fare, but just cool enough to make us crave more autumnal flavors.
Oddly enough, while rice has been a Lowcountry staple for more than three centuries, rice salads don’t seem to have a deep history in our region; they rarely turn up in contemporary books, and I don’t find them in older ones. Yet they’re a staple throughout the summer and early autumn here in Savannah.
My first experience of this curried rice salad—now more than thirty years ago—was at a late-summer luncheon served in the subdued elegance of Savannah’s historic Gothic-Revival Green Meldrim mansion, which today is the parish house for St. John’s Church on Madison Square. The recipe that follows is built on the memories of that elegantly appointed yet lazy and comfortable afternoon.
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 generous teaspoons curry powder
Whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled but left whole
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cups Lowcountry Steamed Rice (recipe follows), at room temperature
¾ cup thinly sliced green onion
½ cup diced celery heart (pale, inner ribs)
½ cup currants or roughly chopped raisins
½ cup toasted slivered almonds or pecans
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1. Whisk together the vinegar, sugar, a large pinch of salt, curry powder, a light grinding of white pepper, and the garlic. Slowly whisk in the oil. Let it stand 15 to 30 minutes, taste, and adjust the seasonings. Remove and discard the garlic.
2. Gently toss together the rice, celery, onion, and currants. Fold in the dressing until it is evenly mixed. Chill thoroughly (at least 1 hour; overnight is better). Just before serving, taste and adjust the seasonings, add the nuts, and mint, and gently toss to mix. Serve cold.
Variation: Curried Shrimp and Rice Salad—To make a handsome main course salad, toss this with 1 pound small cooked shrimp (Basic Boiled Shrimp, page 00). Add a pinch more curry, salt, and a dash of cayenne.
Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Makes about 3 cups, serving 4 to 6
1 cup raw, long-grain rice, (my own preference is real Basmati)
1. Put the rice in a large bowl (or the cooking pot) and fill to within an inch of the rim with water. Gently rub handfuls of rice between your fingers until the water is milky and pour off the water through a large fine-mesh sieve. Repeat until the water is nearly clear. Many local cooks also let the rice soak for a few minutes. Drain thoroughly.
2. Put the rice and a scant 2 cups of cold water in heavy-bottomed pot. Add a healthy pinch of salt. Stir once to make sure the salt is dissolved. Bring it to a boil over medium high heat, stir once to make sure that the rice is not sticking, and reduce the heat to low. Set the lid askew on top of the pot and simmer for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the water is almost completely absorbed and clear, dry steam holes form on the surface.
3. Gently fold the top rice under with a fork, tightly and heat for a minute more to build the steam, and turn off the heat. Move the pot to a warm part spot (if you have an electric range, leave the pot where it is; the residual heat in the burner should be just right.) If you don’t have a warm spot, put the pan in a larger pan of hot water. Let it stand for 12 minutes—longer won’t hurt it. Fluff the rice with a fork, and turn it out into a serving bowl.
Notes on using rice cookers and steamers: if you are using an electric rice cooker or stovetop rice steamer (often called a “Charleston” rice steamer), it is especially important to thoroughly wash the rice, and to follow the manufacturer’s exact proportion of water to rice. If you’re using an old Charleston rice steamer without directions, put the washed rice into the upper pot with an equal volume of water (1 cup for every cup of rice), and put 4 to 5 cups of water in the lower pot. The steamers take longer to cook the rice but are practically foolproof.