This Italian-style vegan salad makes a healthy starter or main course
Spring has arrived here in St Louis. Well, sort of. Daffodils are popping up, but we’re still having some raw days.
Which makes this the perfect time for hearty salads—the kind that use beans or other legumes. They’re protein-rich, so a generous serving makes a meatless main course. But they’re not so heavy that you couldn’t use a smaller serving as a starter, or even as a side dish.
Today’s hearty salad features chickpeas. But it’s also loaded with healthy produce: Fresh spinach, red bell pepper, and red onions. So it tastes like spring.
Recipe: Chickpea, Rice, and Spinach Salad
This salad is easy to adapt to your whims—and to the contents of your pantry. Don’t have chickpeas on hand? Then try substituting white beans. Don’t feel like rice? A small pasta shape like orzo would be a good stand-in. Or you could use another grain—barley, for example, would be interesting. Out of red bell pepper? You could use tomatoes instead (if you can find decent ones).
Maybe you’d like a salad that’s heavier on greens? Just double (or even triple) the spinach quantity. Prefer just a hint of greens? Then halve the amount of spinach, or replace it with half a cup or so of chopped parsley.
Active prep time for this dish is only about 20 minutes. But the taste benefits when you marinate some of the ingredients in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours (see Step 6). So plan on beginning this salad 3 to 4 hours before you want to serve it.
This recipe yields about 4 main-course servings or 8 starter servings. Leftovers keep for a day or two in the refrigerator if stored in an airtight container (although the flavor diminishes somewhat).
- ¾ to 1 cup cooked rice
- 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas
- ½ medium red onion (you could substitute yellow or white, but we prefer the mild taste of red; or you could use a bunch of scallions)
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves (to taste)
- 1 red bell pepper
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons wine vinegar or lemon juice (to taste)
- salt to taste (about ½ teaspoon Kosher salt for us; see Notes)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste (about 8 grinds for us)
- 3 or 4 handfuls of fresh spinach (see Notes)
- garnish of red onion slices, cherry tomatoes, or sliced Campari tomatoes (optional; see Notes)
- If you need to cook rice for this dish, start it now. See Notes.
- Open the cans of chickpeas, and pour them into a strainer or colander. Rinse off the gunk they’re packed in, then allow the chickpeas to drain.
- Peel a red onion and cut it in half through the equator. Then cut one half of the onion into dice of ½ inch or smaller. (Reserve the other onion half for another use. We sometimes cut a few extra rings to serve as garnish.) Set aside.
- Peel the garlic, then mince it finely. Set aside.
- Wash the red bell pepper and dry it. Stem the pepper, then remove the seeds and the white inner ribs. Cut the bell pepper into dice of ½ inch or so. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice (it should be cool, not warm; see Notes), chickpeas, onion, garlic, and red bell pepper. Add the olive oil, then toss (we generally toss by hand, using disposable gloves). When the oil is thoroughly distributed, add vinegar or lemon juice to taste (usually 2 tablespoons for us, but you might want more). Toss again, taste, and adjust the vinegar if necessary. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Wrap the bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 3 hours (or even overnight, if you wish) so the flavors mingle together.
- While the chickpea mixture is marinating, prep the spinach: Wash and dry the spinach. Remove any stems that are large and woody. Cut the spinach into chiffonade (thin strips). The easiest way to do this is to stack several leaves on top of one another, roll them into a cigar-shaped cylinder, then slice the cylinder across its width into strips about ¼ inch wide. Place the spinach strips in a plastic bag and refrigerate them until you're ready to assemble the salad.
- After the chickpea mixture has marinated for at least 3 hours, you can assemble the salad: Add the spinach strips to the chickpea mixture and toss together. Taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Plate the salad, adding a garnish of red onion slices and/or cherry tomatoes or tomato slices, if desired. Serve and enjoy.
- If you don’t have cooked rice on hand and need to make some for this recipe, we suggest cooking the rice first. Any type of rice (including brown rice) will work in this dish. The rice does need to be cooled to at least room temperature, however. If you’re cooking rice for this dish, just drain the cooked rice and then rinse it with cold tap water to cool it. Drain the rice again before adding it to the mixing bowl in Step 6.
- BTW, if you want a much heartier salad, you could increase the amount of rice. We haven’t tried it, but we think anything up to 2 cups of cooked rice should work fine.
- Chickpeas go by many names, including garbanzo beans, ceci beans, and chana. Seems fitting for a legume that packs so many nutrients and so much flavor. It’s also a food that most (although not all) people with dietary restrictions can eat.
- We use canned chickpeas for this dish because they’re inexpensive and generally high quality. But you can use dried chickpeas if you prefer. Just soak them overnight and then cook them until done—maybe an hour or two. Cool them to room temperature before adding them to the salad.
- As noted above, if you don’t want to use chickpeas, white beans (such as great Northerns) would be a good substitute in this salad. Or use any other bean that sounds good to you.
- The amount of spinach you use in this dish is quite flexible. We specify a quantity that complements the chickpeas without overwhelming them. But if you want to emphasize the spinach, just increase the amount.
- If you don’t want to use spinach for this salad, you could substitute another green. Arugula would be particularly tasty, in our opinion. As would young, tender Swiss chard. Or you could use kale—just shave (i.e., mince) it.
- We use red wine vinegar in this dish, but lemon juice works equally well. You could also substitute white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar. We haven’t tried balsamic vinegar, but it sounds interesting—and worth a try.
- If you want to use tomatoes as a garnish, or substitute them for the red bell pepper, it can be hard to find tasty ones at this time of year. In the past we’ve had good luck with grape or cherry tomatoes. Lately, however, we've found those to be pretty tasteless. Campari tomatoes (the ones often sold as “tomato-on-the-vine”) are pretty flavorful, though, and worth checking out. Not as good as local summer tomatoes, but quite serviceable.
- How much salt and pepper to use in this salad? Whatever tastes good to you. We’ve specified the amount we like, but you really should season to taste.
Humans of Unusual Silliness
“Springtime at last,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Nice to get the vegetable garden going again.”
“Yep, we can put in some cold-tolerant veggies soon, like spinach, Swiss chard, kale, lettuce,” I said. “Though we’ll have to wait a bit on the cucumbers and tomatoes.”
“Speaking of which,” said Mrs K R, “do you think the squirrels will be harvesting most of our tomato crop again this year, before we get the opportunity?”
“Those squirrels!” I said clenching my fist. “Every year they get 80% of the tomatoes. They sneak in right before we’re ready to pick them.”
“And often take just a bite or two out of each tomato,” sighed Mrs K R. “Leaving the rest to rot on the garden bed.”
“They’re fiendishly clever,” I said. “They chewed right through that heavy netting we used last year. I think we’re dealing with a mutant strain of squirrels here. Maybe ROUSs.”
“Rodents of Unusual Size?” asked Mrs K R. “Like in The Princess Bride?”
“No, I mean Rodents of Unusual Skill,” I said. “These squirrels are diabolical!”
“Hate to break it to you,” said Mrs K R. “But I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about our squirrels. They’re just doing what squirrels do—which is chew things.”
“Wait,” I said, “if these squirrels aren’t unusually clever, what does that make me?”
“Let’s not go there,” said Mrs K R, patting my hand.
“Well anyway, I’ve got a new plan to thwart them,” I said. “It’s foolproof!”
“I’m sure it is,” said Mrs K R. “Much better than the plan you had last year.”
She cleared her throat. “And the year before that.”
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