The Carb-Forward Salad You Need in Your Life

mr-Fregola Salad with Corn and Snap Peas Image

Every summer, we see a glorious return of the carb-based salad. Potato salads, sure, classic at any warm weather gathering. But also, macaroni or pasta salads, rice salads, couscous salads and grain salads galore. And for good reason! Usually great served cold or at room temp, they are a perfect potluck offering. 

Carb-loaded salads can be dressed lightly in a vinaigrette, or in a rich mayonnaise or sour-cream based dressing. Heck, even last night’s red-sauced or pesto-ed pasta leftovers can become instant pasta salad with the addition of some punchy olive oil, fresh herbs, and a splash of red wine vinegar or squeeze of lemon juice.

Easy never tasted so awesome.

Now, I am a huge fan of all things carb. Any shape or size of pasta, every type of tater, there is no grain with which I have a bad relationship. But if you asked me for my favorite choice for a summer side salad base, I would have to say fregola.

Get the Recipe: Fregola Salad with Corn and Snap Peas

Fregola, for those of you who have not had the pleasure, is a small pearl-shaped pasta similar to Israeli couscous, which is toasted to give it a nutty flavor. While it is not a standard in the pasta aisle at your local grocery store, it is widely available at Italian markets and online, and is worth seeking out. Since it is a dried, hard-wheat pasta, it can hang out in your pantry for a good long while, so when you do source it, stock up.

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I love the variegated colors of fregola, which range from pale straw to chestnut, and the way that the toasted nutty flavor plays off of the other ingredients in a salad, bringing more to the dish than just bland starchyness. I like the small shape, which makes it easy to eat, especially at an event where you might be standing to eat holding your plate in one hand. Because of its small shape, it plays well with other small shapes like lentils or other small beans or peas, which make it a great ingredient for those of us who have carb limitations, as it is easy to do a salad that is half fregola and half a similarly shaped bean or vegetable. 

Get the Recipe: Fregola with Blood Oranges and Sicilian Olives

Can’t find fregola locally, or get it delivered in time for your next do? You can hack your own version with other small-shaped pastas that are more readily available, such as Acini de Pepe, Israeli couscous, or Orzo. Simply spread your dried pasta out on a sheet pan and toast in a 400-degree oven until the color deepens to a golden brown the color of a good pie crust.  It will be fine if you get good variation of colors on your pan, just remove it when the first few hit that color, and you’ll have the right balance. Let cool on a rack in the pan completely before using or storing.

As with all of these types of salads, you are only limited by your own imagination. So, if you were looking to make your own recipe, think about balance. I tend to keep the total number of ingredients fewer but let each have more punch. You want different textures so that the eating is exciting from bite to bite. A good ratio is between half to two-thirds cooked, drained and cooled fregola to other ingredients. I usually use one bright, colorful vegetable and fresh herbs to bring visual appeal, some acidic or briny element, a raw item for freshness, and often a toasted nut or other crunchy element. 


A good thought is to use one raw or cooked vegetable or fruit that is your bright element. This can be anything from tiny whole sweety drop peppers, to sour pomegranate seeds, to small florets of orange or purple cauliflower. Your briny element can be capers, olives, preserved lemon, or small pieces of something pickled like cornichons or cocktail onions. For crunchy, toasted chopped or whole nuts like slivered almonds, toasted sesame seeds, or hazelnuts are all great, but also fried onions, chopped corn nuts, or toasted bread crumbs can all work well, as can croutons or shards of pita chips.

While this salad is wonderful as a side dish, it also can be the base of a wonderful meal. For a luncheon or light supper I will put a pile of the salad atop some crunchy greens like little gem lettuces, or romaine, and add some slices of grilled flank steak, a filet of fish or chicken thigh or breast, or even a well-seasoned slab of grilled firm tofu. 


Cheese can also be a welcome addition, from salty crumbled feta, to creamy chevre, to a good parmesan, if you want to go that way. Just remember as soon as you add dairy, you are limited to a two-hour window on a buffet.

In terms of dressing, I think fregola shines best with a light coating of a flavorful oil, a good seasoning with salt and pepper, and fresh herbs, with your briny or acidic element bringing the balance, but truly, any basic vinaigrette you love will work fine. I don’t tend to use creamy or mayo-based dressings on mine, as I find the small spheres of pasta stick together in clumps and get gummy, but you should experiment to your heart’s content. 

Get the Recipe: Fregola Salad with Corn and Snap Peas

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