For the vinaigrette:
2 Tbl fresh orange juice (from the oranges, below)
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 tsp dark brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the orange juice, thyme, mustard, brown sugar and sherry vinegar. Slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour. Season to taste with salt and pepper. This can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight container, until needed.
For the rest of the salad:
1 cup medium grain black rice *
1 cup pecan halves
about 10 medium-sized asparagus stalks
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 c grapes, washed and sliced in half
4 stalks celery, washed and sliced very thinly on the diagonal
3 green onions, washed and sliced thinly on the diagonal, both white and green parts
1 Tbl orange zest
1 Tbl thyme leaves (whole, not chopped)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prep the rice: First, rinse the rice - Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water. Give it a few good stirs, then drain off the water. Cover with new cool water, stir, and drain again. Repeat covering with water, stirring and draining, until the water no longer turns purplish. Add the rice and 2 cups clean water to a medium-sized sauce pot. Bring to a boil, stir once, then cover with a lid. Reduce the heat to low, to keep the rice at a bare simmer. Simmer for 50 minutes. To check if the rice is done, tilt the pot to see if any water is left at the bottom. If there’s a bit of water left over, cook for about 3-5 minutes more. When all the water is absorbed, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to rest ten minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork, then pour the rice over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Allow it to cool to room temperature, then transfer to an air-tight container and chill it in the refrigerator. The rice is best made a day ahead, and chilled overnight.
Toast the pecans: Preheat the oven to 350°F, line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the pecans across the paper. Toast for five minutes, turn the pan, and continue to toast until you can smell the nice nutty aroma and the color of the nuts has deepened a bit, about 10-15 minutes total. Remove from the oven and set the pecans aside until needed.
Prep the asparagus: The bottoms of the stems are tough and woody but the tops are tender. To determine where to trim, take one stem and holding the bottom of the stem in one hand and the middle in the other, bend the stem. It will snap right at the point where tough turns to tender. Line up the rest of the asparagus so their tips align, and slice off their bottom portions at the same point where the first one snapped. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook until just barely tender, about three or so minutes. Drain, then plunge into a large bowl of ice water, and let soak for about a minute. Drain from the ice water, and slice the asparagus into bit-size pieces of about 1-inch long. Set aside until needed.
Slice the oranges: With a sharp knife, remove the peel - Slice off the top and bottom ends. Rest the orange on the cutting board, and slice from top to bottom down the sides, removing the skin and the white pith that lies beneath. Continue to slice away the skin, around the entire fruit. Cut away any pith you may have missed. Now, slice the orange into segments - Hold the peeled orange over a bowl. Slice downward towards the center of the orange, as close as possible along the white membrane separating the segments. Make the same slice on the opposite side of the same segment. When the two cuts meet at the center, the orange segment with slide out, and fall into the bowl. Repeat with the remaining segments. When done with the entire fruit, squeeze the juice into the bowl. Strain the juice into a separate container (use 2 Tbl of this for the vinaigrette). Set aside the orange segments until needed.
Prep the raisins: Place the raisins in a small bowl. Cover with boiling water and soak for about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside until needed.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked rice with the toasted pecans, sliced asparagus, orange segments, soaked raisins, halved grapes, sliced celery, sliced green onions, orange zest and thyme leaves. Drizzle with the vinaigrette. Season with a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper. Toss thoroughly to combine. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. The salad can benefit greatly if you allow it to set for a few hours. The rice will soak up the vinaigrette and all the flavors will meld. To serve, transfer to a serving bowl or platter. Best served at room temperature.
* Black rice may be one of those ingredients that’s a bit tricky to find, but it’s just so pretty, I think it’s worth the search. I used this type, and I find it at Whole Foods, but my bet is that you’d have pretty good luck finding it at any somewhat-specialty grocery store. (Long-grain wild rice is a very pretty type of black-colored rice too. It’s maybe easier to find, but it’s maybe a bit more expensive too.) No matter what type of rice you end up using, you’d be better to follow the directions on the rice package, as far as cooking times, rather than following mine to the T, since the cooking time for each specific type of rice varies a bit. Adjust the times, but still follow the same general method of bringing the rice and water to a boil, then covering the pot, reducing the heat, and simmering until done. And definitely make sure you rinse your rice well though before cooking it. Otherwise, it will be an ugly, sticky mess.