Healthy salad packed with protein, whole grains

Associated Press photo by Matthew Mead -- Farro and Vegetable Salad With Cucumber Ranch Dressing Show caption
Associated Press photo by Matthew Mead -- Farro and Vegetable Salad With Cucumber Ranch Dressing

Back in my restaurant days, we used to make a delicious summer salad of white rice with peas, shredded carrots and radishes dressed with a dill mayonnaise, but I can’t say it was terribly nutritious. I figured there had to be a way to make it lighter, and there was.

I started by replacing the white rice with farro. An ancient and nutritious form of whole wheat from Italy, farro boasts a pleasingly nutty taste and a slightly chewy texture.

The prep time for farro depends largely on the variety you buy. There are three kinds sold in America — whole, semi-pearled and pearled.

Whole farro — bran and husk included — is the most nutritious and takes the longest to cook. Pearled farro — with the bran and husk removed — takes the least time. In any case, just follow the instructions on the back of the package and plan ahead.

I retired the peas in the original recipe in favor of edamame. Peas are plenty nutritious, but edamame really jack up the protein content. Steamed in the pod, then sprinkled with salt — simple and delicious — edamame are a staple appetizer in Japanese restaurants. For this recipe, you’ll want the shelled version. They boil up in about 5 minutes.

I’ve retained the shredded carrots and the radishes from the original recipe, but I’ve ditched the full-fat mayonnaise in favor of ranch dressing. Thanks to its buttermilk base, ranch dressing is one of those magical ingredients that is at once full of flavor and low in calories. I partnered the buttermilk with some of the usual suspects: a bit of oil, a bit of low-fat mayonnaise, and some garlic and fresh herbs. Then, I kicked in a twist of my own, chopped cucumber, which adds a fresh flavor. At the end of the day, this is a dressing with legs; it would make a lovely dip for raw vegetables and a tangy sauce for grilled chicken or shrimp.

The salad as a whole also is pretty versatile. If you have carnivores coming for dinner, you can bulk it up with some of the aforementioned chicken or shrimp. I’d be content with a sprinkling of feta, but I know many would appreciate something more substantial.

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public TV’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.”