This Ancient Grains Salad is a healthy side dish or a light meal that is brimming with fiber, plant-based protein, vitamins, and minerals! It features juicy cherry tomatoes, salty kalamata olives, and a tangy tahini dressing that's to die for!
What are ancient grains?
"Ancient grain" is a term used to describe whole grains that have been grown the same way for centuries and have been minimally changed over time.
While most of the modern grains we eat today have undergone selective breeding and have significantly changed in look, taste, and quality, ancient grains have remained practically the same.
Farro (aka emmer wheat) is named to be the oldest grain that exists today and it's considered to be 10,000 years old.
Not only that but ancient grains are a nutritious powerhouse and are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein, and more!
Each one of them has its own unique qualities and benefits, hence why it's a good recommendation to switch them up or do a mix of different grains.
Why you'll love this recipe
- Easy to make. If you cook your grains ahead of time it will take you just 10 minutes to put this delicious salad together.
- Great for meal prep. Unlike other salads that get soggy after being tossed with a dressing, this one tastes even better the next day and continues to be for up to 2 days.
- Customizable. You can add any vegetable, fresh or dried fruit, or protein that you like. This recipe has no limits!
- Hearty and nourishing. Not only is this salad filling and will keep you full for hours but it's also packed with dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, protein, B vitamins (especially B3, B5, and B6), magnesium, zinc, iron, and more!
- Ancient grains: I'm using farro, quinoa, and pearl barley today, but any grains of your choice can work. A good combination would be amaranth, spelt, and kamut. Red quinoa can also work.
- Cherry or grape tomatoes: If cherry tomatoes are not in season, you can use sun-dried tomatoes instead. Whole chopped tomatoes can also work in a pinch.
- Red onion: It cuts through the sweetness of the tomatoes and the saltiness of the olives and adds a pungent flavor. Green onions are a good substitution if you don't have red onion on hand.
- Olives: I'm using kalamata olives, but green olives or any type of Spanish olives will be delicious here as well.
- Fresh basil: Adding fresh herbs to salads is a great way to boost the flavor with just 1 ingredient. Other fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, and mint will also be a good addition to this recipe.
- Tahini: It adds creaminess and nutty flavor to the dressing, while also keeping it free of refined oils.
- Lemon juice and balsamic vinegar: For adding tanginess and acidity. You can use lime juice and red wine vinegar as substitutes, but you'll need to add less red wine vinegar since it has a stronger flavor than balsamic.
- Date: Adding just one date adds the perfect amount of sweetness to balance out all of the acidity. Make sure to soak it in hot water to soften it before blending.
- Dijon mustard: My favorite ingredient to add to salad dressings. If you don't have it on hand, you can use grainy mustard or yellow mustard instead, but may need to increase the amount.
- Garlic: Using fresh garlic is essential for adding depth of flavor.
- Salt and black pepper: Optional, if needed to taste.
How to make ancient grains salad
Start by cooking your grains in a large pot filled with salted boiling water.
Check the packaging instructions for the exact cooking time. Farro usually takes the longest, then quinoa, then pearled barley.
Add your longest cooking grain to the pot first and set a timer for the difference between the longest cooking grain minus the second longest. When the timer goes off, add your second grain. Set the timer again for the difference between the second and third grain cook times. When the alarm sounds, add the third grain and set it for its cooking time.
When all of the grains are cooked, drain and rinse them under cold water. Set aside to further cool until room temperature.
In the meantime, prepare the tahini dressing. To a high-speed blender, add all of the ingredients, starting with the liquid first.
Blend on high speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the mixture is completely smooth and no chunks of garlic or dates remain.
To assemble the ancient grains salad, add all of the ingredients including the cooked grains to a large bowl.
Pour the dressing all over, and gently toss to coat. Be careful to not mash the grains or any of the other ingredients.
Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed, adding more salt, lemon juice, or basil leaves to taste.
Serve immediately, or refrigerate for 2 hours to allow the flavor to meld and marinate.
- Prepare your grains ahead of time. This is by far the most time-consuming step of this recipe, but luckily you can prepare it up to 4 days ahead of time. You can also blend the dressing and keep it in a sealed jar for a few days. Then all you'll have to do is toss everything and serve!
- For more flavor, cook the grains in vegetable broth and aromatics. You can add bay leaves, onion, black peppercorns, and garlic cloves. This will flavor the grains from the inside out.
- Add more or less dressing to taste. This recipe makes more dressing than you may initially need, but I suggest you save some of it for later. The grains tend to soak up most of the liquid when marinating in the fridge, which can cause the salad to dry out. You can add the leftover dressing to brighten it back up.
- Cool down the grains before mixing. If they're still hot, the salad will become soggy and the vegetables will steam and get mushy from the heat.
The seven ancient grains include Quinoa, Amaranth, Millet, Teff, Bulgur, and Freekeh, as well as some varieties of wheat like Farro, Spelt, Kamut, and Einkorn.
Not all of them are gluten-free, so it's important to read labels before purchasing. Gluten-free ancient grains include Quinoa, Amaranth, Millet, and Teff.
While farro and spelt have low amounts of gluten, they're considered varieties of wheat and are not suitable for people with gluten intolerances.
A good substitution for barley and other ancient grains would be wild rice or brown rice. Both of them provide a chewy texture and still have plenty of nutritional benefits.
- Switch up the dressing: If you can't be bothered to make your own dressing, take a shortcut and use any of your favorite store-bought dressing. I also love using my spicy cashew dressing, or this tahini caesar dressing.
- Add vegan cheese: Vegan feta cheese, nutritional yeast parmesan, or a ball of vegan burrata would be delicious in this ancient grains salad.
- Add your favorite fresh vegetables: Any veggies such as cucumbers, bell peppers, kale, baby spinach, roasted sweet potatoes, or butternut squash will be delicious. You can even throw in fruits like chopped apples or a handful of dried cranberries.
- Bump up the protein: You can add chickpeas, white beans, crispy tofu, or marinated tempeh.
How to serve ancient grains salad
This ancient grains salad is the perfect side dish to baked feta pasta, vegan lasagna, kale and tomato risotto, or these chickpea patties. For something cozy, I love to pair it with this navy bean vegetable soup or this cherry tomato soup.
It's also delicious served over a bed of greens like arugula or massaged kale, stuffed inside wraps, or on its own as a light meal.
To keep it fresh for longer, keep the salad ingredients and the dressing in separate containers until you're ready to serve. This way everything will last for 3-4 days in the fridge.
If you have already dressed salad, store it in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 days.
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- How to Make a Satisfying Vegan Salad
Simple Ancient Grains Salad with Tahini Dressing
For the salad:
- ½ cup farro, uncooked
- ½ cup quinoa, uncooked
- ½ cup pearl barley, uncooked
- 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
- ½ cup kalamata olives, halved
- ½ small red onion, diced
- ½ cup fresh basil leaves, thinly chopped
For the dressing:
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- ¼ cup tahini
- ⅔ cup water
- ½ lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 date, pitted soaked in hot water for 30 min, or 1⁄4 cup raisins
- Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil. Check the package instructions for your grains, add your longest cooking grain to the pot first (typically farro), and set a timer for the difference between the longest cooking grain minus the second longest. When the timer goes off, add your second grain (most likely quinoa). Set the timer again for the difference between the second and third grain cook times. When the alarm sounds, add the third grain and set it for its cooking time.½ cup farro, ½ cup quinoa, ½ cup pearl barley
- Once done, drain the grains in a fine mesh strainer and rinse with cold water.
- In the meantime, prepare the tahini dressing. To a high-speed blender, add all of the ingredients, starting with the liquid first. Blend on high speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the mixture is completely smooth and no chunks of garlic or dates remain. Adjust consistency with more water if needed.¼ cup balsamic vinegar, ¼ cup tahini, ½ lemon, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 clove garlic, 1 date, ⅔ cup water
- To assemble the ancient grains salad, add all of the ingredients including the cooked grains to a large bowl. Pour the dressing all over, and gently toss to coat. Be careful not to mash the grains or any of the other ingredients. You may have more dressing than you need, so feel free to add as much to your liking and store the rest for future salads.1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, ½ cup kalamata olives, ½ small red onion, ½ cup fresh basil leaves
- Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed, adding more salt, lemon juice, or basil leaves to taste. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for 2 hours to allow the flavor to meld and marinate.