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THE HEALTHY PLATE: Recipe for farro and vegetable salad with cucumber ranch dressing

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Back in my restaurants days, we used to make a delicious summer salad of white rice with peas, shredded carrots and radishes dressed with a dill mayonnaise. It was tasty and filling but, in retrospect, I can't say it was terribly nutritious. But 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. It's not as popular here as it should be because too many home cooks think that it is complicated and/or time consuming to make. Neither is true.

What is true is that the prep time for farro depends largely on the variety you buy. There are three kinds sold in America — whole, semi-pearled and pearled. All three tend to be labeled simply "farro," though the instructions on the back of the package are more specific.

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. If you cook a big batch during the weekend, you can freeze it in 2-, 3- or 4-cup portions, then use just what you need during the week.

I retired the peas in the original recipe in favour 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. Most grocers offer both shelled and in-the-pod varieties (check the freezer aisle). 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 favour of ranch dressing. Thanks to its buttermilk base, ranch dressing is one of those magical ingredients that is at once full of flavour 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 flavour. 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 The Husband — like so many guys — would appreciate something more substantial.

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FARRO AND VEGETABLE SALAD WITH CUCUMBER RANCH DRESSING

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Servings: 6

1/2 cup coarsely chopped seedless cucumber

1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt and ground black pepper

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon, dill or parsley

2 cups cooked farro (follow package directions)

1 cup cooked shelled edamame

1 cup coarsely shredded carrots

1 cup coarsely shredded radishes

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

In a blender, combine the cucumber, mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic, lemon juice, oil and salt and pepper, to taste. Puree until smooth. Stir in the chives and tarragon, then transfer to a jar and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the farro, edamame, carrots and radishes. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, add the feta to the salad, if using. Toss the salad with two thirds of the dressing, then divide among 6 serving plates. Serve the extra dressing on the side.

Nutrition information per serving: 240 calories; 110 calories from fat (46 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 26 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 9 g protein; 310 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: 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 television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."

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