This vegan rice salad is adapted from delicious Italian "insalata di riso" and it's the perfect summer dish, easy to prepare in advance and bring with you for a picnic outdoors or on the beach. Our rice salad is a fulfilling meal that is nutritious, light, crunchy, colourful, and refreshing. To make it extra healthy and fulfilling we use brown rice, colourful vegetables, and delicious smoked tofu.
Rice salad is a traditional summer dish that is widely popular all around Italy. In the shoe-shaped country, however, Insalata di Riso is often made with non-vegan ingredients such as canned tuna fish, eggs, cheese, and even wurst sausage.
For environmental and health reasons we try to stay away from animal-based ingredients (did you know that tuna fish is subject to heavy overfishing and that processed wurst sausage is listed by the WHO as a carcinogen just like cigarette smoke?) and so we developed a recipe that is as yummy as the original one but a lot healthier and eco-friendly.
The ingredients list below is just an indication of what you need. With this recipe you can be completely creative. Just remember to balance colours and textures to get the most delicious and nutritionally balanced meal. As a rule of thumb, try to cover as many colours of the rainbow as possible 🙂
🥬 Ingredients & substitutions
Whole grain brown rice: healthier and more fulfilling than white rice. You can replace it with buckwheat, couscous, barley, whole grain oats.
Chickpea: we add this to improve the protein profile of the dish by complementing the methionine in the rice with the lysine in the chickpea and give you a full protein profile. You can replace it with lentils, green peas or edamame beans.
Smoked Tofu: perfect to add that smokey flavor and texture and make the dish extra yummy. You can replace it with any vegan sausage.
Zucchini: you can replace it with eggplant (aubergine) or cucumber.
Lettuce: to add crunch and the summery light green color
Black olives: to add umami, can be replaced by green olives.
Cherry tomatoes: to add sweetness, you can replace them with other tomato types or by red bell pepper.
Yellow pepper: you can replace it with sweet corn.
Carrots: to add crunch and orange color.
Capers: to add umami, freshness, and saltiness to the dish. You can replace them with pickled vegetables such as cucumbers, small onions, carrots, etc.
Parsley: to add a dash of freshness to the final dish. You can replace it with dill or chives, or use it in combination with them.
Olive oil + lemon juice: our condiment of choice as it keeps this rice salad healthy and light.
⏲️ Quick version
The recipe card below describe the best procedure to make a perfect rice salad, however, if you don't have time to follow all the steps and just want to make a quicker salad that is still fresh and delicious just do as follow.
1) Replace the zucchini with half cucumber, cut all the vegetables and the tofu as described below, without cooking them.
2) Add all the cut vegetables, tofu and chickpea to the cooked rice, season with olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, mix well and serve. Parsley and pine nuts on top are optional.
📋 Recipe Card
Italian rice salad recipe
- 2 cups whole grain rice (400 grams)
- 0.5 cup chickpea (100 grams)
- 3 oz smoked tofu (80 grams)
- 1 medium zucchini (250 grams)
- 8 leaves lettuce (50 grams)
- 5 tbsp black olives (50 grams)
- 8 cherry tomatoes (170 grams)
- 1 yellow pepper (200 grams)
- 2 carrots (100 grams)
- 2.5 tbsp capers (30 grams)
- salt & pepper
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp pine nuts (optional) (10 grams)
- parsley (optional)
Prepping the ingredients
- In a large pot with lightly salted boiling water, boil the whole grain rice for as long as described on the package minus 2 minutes. This is important as the rice will keep cooking with its residual heat.
- Preheat the oven to 390˚F (200˚C). Slice the zucchini into thick slices, season them with salt and a tiny bit of olive oil, and roast them in the oven for about 20 minutes. At the same time, roast the whole yellow pepper in the oven for about 30 minutes. Then set aside to cool down.
- Once the rice is cooked, drain it well, move it to a large oven dish and add 2 tbsp of lemon juice immediately while mixing it in with a spoon. This will help lower the temperature of the rice and add flavour. Set aside and keep stirring occasionally to help the rice cool down faster.
- On a non-stick pan warm up 1 tbsp of olive oil, then add drained chickpeas and the tofu chopped into small dice. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for two to three minutes. You can add some dried Italian herbs if you have them at hand. Set aside and let cool down.
- Slice the olives into thin slices, cut the cherry tomatoes into 4 pieces each, cut the carrot into small dice, slice the lettuce into small pieces, rinse the capers under tap water. Add all in a large bowl and season with 1 tbsp of lemon juice, 1 tbsp of olive oil and salt. Mix well.
- Once the zucchini and yellow pepper are cooked and cooled, peel and remove the seeds from the pepper then slice both pepper and zucchini into small dice of roughly the same size.
Building the rice salad
- Build your rice salad following this order: 1) Add the rice to the bowl with the olives, tomatoes, carrot, capers and lettuce. Mix well with a wooden spoon. 2) Add chickpeas and tofu. Mix well with a wooden spoon. 3) Add the roasted zucchini and pepper. Mix gently from bottom to top with a wooden spoon.
- Taste and add some more salt if needed. Also, if you wish you can add an extra tbsp or two of olive oil and lemon juice.
- Finally, let rest in the fridge for about one hour to let the flavours come together. Then take out of the fridge and let at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving. Rice salad should be served cool but NOT cold.
- Optional: serve with a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley and some toasted pine nuts.
👨🏻🍳 Top tips
Pick the right rice
We recommend using whole grain rice (brown, red, purple, black). It's richer in flavour and texture than standard white rice and it's easier to keep "al dente". Also, it is more nutritious as it contains more protein, fibre, magnesium, zinc and iron.
You can pick long grain or medium grain for this rice salad. If you are short on time, opt for parboiled rice, a partially cooked type of rice that is also more nutritious than standard white rice.
Cook the rice correctly
We want the rice with some bite (al dente) so look at the cooking time on the package and remove 2 minutes. Also, we want the grains of the rice to stay separate from each other. To do this, cook the rice in a large pot with plenty of water. Add some coarse salt to the water to infuse flavour to the rice.
Cool the rice correctly
After cooking we want to cool the rice as quickly as possible so that it does not keep cooking, becoming mushy and glued together. Remember: do not rinse the rice under cold water! You will lose a lot of flavour and texture in this way. Instead, get an oven tray and place the hot rice that you just cooked on it, then add some cold lemon juice, and spread it over the tray with a fork.
Some more tips
Play with textures and colours
Pick vegetables that are different in colour. This will make your salad more appealing but also more nutritious! Colours are given by antioxidants, so the more colourful the salad, the more varieties of antioxidants you'll get.
Also, think about textures: crunchy (carrots), mushy (avocado), chewy (tofu), soft (roasted zucchini). Try to have different textures, not all the same.
Avoid ready-made rice salad ingredients
While very convenient, these products will not make the best and healthiest rice salad. In Italy, everyone uses them, which is a shame since Italy has some of the best fresh produce in the world. Large food companies make these products with cheap oils, and they will not think about how the vegetables are grown, nor about your health. Take ownership of your health and pick fresh vegetables instead.
Grill/season your vegetables
It's important that you season each component of the salad on their own, and not all together at the end. For example, we lightly season the raw ingredients together with some lemon juice, salt, and olive oil, before adding them to the rice. We also lightly sauté the chickpea and the tofu with some oil, salt, and pepper to make it tastier. And we roast the pepper and the zucchini to boost their flavour and change their texture. This way of cooking will take longer, but it will result in the best rice salad you have ever eaten.
📖 Questions & answers
Yes. Your salad will taste even better if you make it one day ahead as the flavours will have the time to melt together. If you make the rice salad ahead of time you can keep it in a bowl, cover it with a lid and store it in the refrigerator. Before eating it, let it warm up at room temperature for about 30 minutes so that all the flavours come back to life. Rice salad should be eaten cool or at room temperature, NOT cold.
No, there are too many delicate ingredients of different textures so freezing will ruin the salad.
Yes, all rice and fresh vegetables are gluten free so this salad is a naturally gluten free dish.
Absolutely yes! While most people believe that staying away from carbs is the way to be healthy, this cannot be further from the truth. Ever heard of the blue zones? This dish contains a perfect balance of complex carbs, protein, fats and fibre. All from whole foods and plant-based. No hormones or unhealthy animal products.
Quick rice salad: use parboiled rice or white rice for shorter cooking time. Use raw vegetables instead of pre-cooking and pre-seasoning. You can use the same ingredients and quantities as described in the recipe card, just swap the zucchini for cucumber or avocado and you are good to go.
Asian style wild rice salad: for the dressing mix together 3tbsp rice vinegar, 2tsp miso paste, 2 tbsp soy or tamari sauce, 1.5 tbsp grated ginger, 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1.5 tbsp maple or agave syrup, 1 tbsp sesame oil. For the salad mix together 2 cups cooked wild rice, 3 tbsp sliced green onions, 1 cup shredded carrot, 1.5 cups shredded purple cabbage, 4tbsp chopped fresh cilantro, 3tbsp toasted sesame seeds, lime wedges.
Couscous or barley salad: the exact same ingredients of our recipe work for a great cold barley salad or couscous salad. Just replace the rice for one of these two delicious ingredients.
You can store this Italian style vegan rice salad in the refrigerator in a bowl covered with a lid for up to 3 - 4 days. When you are ready to serve it, take it out of the fridge and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Then give it a good stir and top it with some fresh parsley and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
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If you have any tips or questions let us know in the comments below!