This vegan spinach rice salad is the best summer lunch! Made with brown rice and a lemony dressing, it’s nutritious, satisfying, and simple.
I could probably eat a grain salad every day for lunch between the months of June and September.
Grain salads keep me full, but they’re light and cooling enough to work for the hottest time of the year. They showcase whole grains, which are a cornerstone of plant-based diets and one of my very favorite things to eat. And they lend themselves to so much variety.
I’ve been making and sharing grain salads for years on this blog. The spinach rice salad that I’m sharing today may be one of the simplest that I’ve written about.
Simple is what works for me lately. I’m still in that phase after cookbook writing when I don’t want to make anything especially complex. And since I’m moving in only a few weeks, I’m doing my best to use up the whole grains that I have in my pantry.
That includes brown rice.
Cool rice for warm days
There are a few varieties of brown rice in my apartment at any given time: long-grain, short-grain, parboiled. I probably use short-grain brown rice the most, but long-grain gets plenty of use, too.
Brown shows up in so many of my plates and bowls. I use it in simple, sautéed skillet meals, including my super adaptable grain, green, and bean skillet, my lemon dill zucchini chickpea rice, and my cumin spiced lentils and rice.
Brown rice becomes an accompaniment for stir fry, tofu scramble, and simple vegan proteins, like my baked lemon pepper tempeh cubes. I love serving it with vegan chili.
It wasn’t until I wrote Power Plates that I realized how great cool rice could be in salads. There’s a recipe for a brown rice tabbouleh in that book, and it’s one of my favorite summer dishes.
I remember how the tabbouleh defied my expectations when I made it. It was untraditional, of course, but I loved how the cooked rice added a little extra heft to a dish that’s usually made with a smaller whole grain.
I was also surprised at how nice it was to have cold rice along with crispy greens and a good dressing. It was simultaneously filling and refreshing, not to mention a smart way to use up leftover cooked rice.
This spinach rice salad follows suit. It features a mix of crisp grains and steamed asparagus, juicy grape or cherry tomatoes, and, of course, the rice. A creamy, lemony Dijon vinaigrette brings all of the ingredients to life.
Does the rice need to be cold?
I like to think of this as a cool rice salad, rather than a cold rice salad. The rice doesn’t have to be cold when you mix the ingredients.
To make the salad, I usually cook my rice and allow it to come to room temperature. It cools down a little more when it’s tossed with the other ingredients.
If you have leftovers to store—and the rice salad keeps really well for a few days—the rice will be cold when you have it next.
In other words, this can be a room temperature, cool, or cold grain salad, depending on how you prepare it. It tastes really great no matter the temperature.
How to make brown rice salad
Fortunately, this salad is a snap to make.
Step one: boil your rice (like pasta!)
You’ll start by cooking your rice. I’m a firm defender of cooking brown rice in a big pot of boiling water, like pasta, then draining and steaming it after cooking.
I first learned this trick from Saveur magazine, and I haven’t cooked rice in any other way since then. Boiling rice like pasta ensures fluffy, perfectly cooked grains every single time, without any annoying guesswork about whether you have the right rice:liquid ratio.
It also ensures that you won’t end up with any pots of burnt, mushy, or undercooked rice.
Step two: cool your rice
I recommend cooling your rice for at least 30 minutes, or until it’s only gently warm or at room temperature.
It’s also fine to cool the rice entirely, in the fridge. If you like, you can prepare the rice a day or two ahead of time, store it in the fridge, and use it in the salad when you’re ready.
Step 3: Steam your asparagus (or another vegetable)
I made the rice salad originally with what I had, which was a lovely bunch of bright green asparagus stalks.
I steamed stalks gently before adding them to the salad, so that they would be crisp tender. And I allowed them to cool a bit, like the rice, before cutting them into pieces and adding them to the salad.
If you have another vegetable at home, like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, beets, or whatever else, feel free to use that produce to replace the asparagus.
Step 4: Whisk your dressing
The dressing for the rice salad is a variation of a new thing that I’ve been doing, which is vinaigrette that has some tahini in it.
I make tahini-only dressings all the time. This site has many varieties: green tahini dressing, balsamic tahini dressing, tahini beet dressing, turmeric tahini dressing, and lemon tahini dressing, to name only a few.
The dressing for my brown rice salad is different. It’s a primarily olive oil-based vinaigrette, but a little tahini gives it a touch of richness and creaminess.
I’m loving this combination lately! Tahini vinaigrette, if you will, has the creaminess of an all-tahini dressing, along with the unctuousness of an oil-based salad dressing. It’s a perfect hybrid, and in this recipe, it coats all of the grains and greens beautifully.
Step 5: Mix & enjoy
Once the rice and veggies are cooked and cooled and the dressing is mixed, you can toss all of your ingredients together.
I used baby spinach as the base of my salad. I really like the texture of spinach with the rice and asparagus, and the dark green color is a nice contrast with bright red, grape tomatoes.
If you have another salad green that you love, feel free to use those greens instead.
Meal prep & storage
It’s tough to find salad recipes that make for reliable leftovers. Fortunately, the spinach rice salad is one of them.
Because this is primarily a whole grain salad, stored portions will hold their own for a few days in the fridge. The rice salad is a great option for make-ahead summer lunches (and it was responsible for my own lunches last week).
How to serve spinach rice salad
Speaking of leftovers, the salad makes 4 small portions or 2-3 larger ones.
If you like, you could throw in some chickpeas, white beans, lentils, or tofu to make it more filling.
You could also serve the salad with a chilled or warm soup. I’ve had it with my sweet potato red pepper soup, and it was a nice combination. My super simple green soup is another recipe that’s a good accompaniment to grain salads.
More summery grain salads
If you make and love the rice salad, and you’d like to try a few more dishes like it, I’ve got you. Here are some of my favorite whole grain salads for summer:
- Sweet potato bulgur citrus salad
- Protein-packed bean and quinoa salad
- Black bean quinoa salad with cumin dressing
- Pesto farro & baby kale salad
- Broccoli tabbouleh
- “Anything goes” vegan pantry salad
- Lemon orzo pasta salad
- Carrot chickpea couscous salad
- Tempeh quinoa salad with cumin vinaigrette
- 1 cup dry long-grain brown rice (180g; you can also use short-grain brown rice)
- 1/2 pound asparagus, tough ends trimmed (225)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon tahini
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 cups (heaping) baby spinach, roughly chopped (60g)
- 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
Place the rice in a ﬁne-mesh sieve and rinse under cold running water for about 15 seconds. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rice and boil (like pasta) until tender, 35 to 40 minutes, then remove the rice from the heat. Drain the rice and return it to the pot. Cover and allow it to steam for 5 minutes. Uncover the pot and ﬂuff the rice gently with a fork. Re- cover and set aside for 30 minutes. At this point, the cooked rice can be transferred to an airtight container and stored for the fridge for up to two days, before you proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Fill a large pot with a few inches of water and fit it with a steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat to low. Place the asparagus stalks in your steamer basket, cover the pot, and steam until very fork tender, yet still bright green and crisp, 4 to 10 minutes (this will depend greatly on the thickness of your asparagus stalks). Remove the steamer basket from the pot and allow the stalks to cool enough for you to handle them. Cut them into 2-inch pieces.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, tahini, lemon juice, mustard, shallot (if using), salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
When the rice is ready, place it into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooked asparagus, spinach, and tomatoes. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad ingredients. Mix well. Add a little extra olive oil, lemon, salt or pepper as needed. Serve or store.
Simplicity with food is always a gift, but summer is the time when simple eats feel especially right. Produce is so fresh, colorful, and abundant, and it doesn’t take much to make it shine.
Hope this simple, fresh little salad will become part of your warm weather lunch routine! It’s already becoming part of mine.