Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An Orzo Salad To Make Repeatedly

I have a big honking crush on an Orzo Salad right now. Yes, that’s right, I’ve become smitten with a salad and I can’t get enough of it. It’s a little like falling in love with someone new without enough hours in the day, for you want to spend as much time as possible together while discovering what makes this new person in your life so compelling. At least that’s always been my own experience, but I must confess that I also do this with food to a similar degree.

When I first encounter a new magical combination of ingredients, I often wind up making the same dish repeatedly for days or even weeks on end. For example, I have no shame in admitting that I made Chocolate Toasts every day for MONTHS after my initial encounter with them once upon a time. (If you’ve ever tried this divine combination of toasted baguette slices topped with melted bittersweet chocolate and drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of flaky sea salt, you’d probably have a similar daily compulsion yourself.) Those who know me well might expect me to be particularly obsessive that way when it comes to desserts. But oddly enough, I actually get into more of a tape loop with savory recipes, especially when a great salad is involved.

I became totally infatuated with a Sliced Spring Salad last April. There were weeks on end in which I kept a bottomless bowl of these particular veggies prepped at all times, needing only a splash of tangy vinaigrette and a few cubes of velvety avocado to tie them all together on a moment’s notice. I switched gears when I fell hard for a Arugula Fennel Salad that I encountered in San Francisco late last summer. This love affair continued well into the fall as I shaved countless bulbs of fennel, tossing them with untold handfuls of wild baby arugula and a lively scattering of grated orange zest, chopped pistachios and toasted breadcrumbs. I was utterly beguiled, unable to tear myself away from this flavor combination for months. But then this Orzo Salad came along and swept me off my feet.

I love orzo, the rice-shaped pasta, which provides the backdrop for this summery salad. Diced cucumber gives the salad crunch while slivered scallions and red onion contribute a welcome bite. If you throw in a few petite peas with a handful of chopped dill and mint before adding a snowfall of crumbled feta cheese, then all you need is a bright lemony dressing to bring it into delicious harmony. This is a flexible recipe, one that leaves room for lots of variation, and I’ll share my take on it with you in the hopes that it will provide a springboard for your own imagination.

I first made this orzo salad a few weeks ago for a little party I threw to celebrate my twelve-year anniversary in my current apartment. Life is very different now than it was when I first moved into this space, but happily so, and my mind is on overdrive whenever I think of all of the incredible experiences and amazing people who have come into my orbit in that time. I am filled with unspeakable gratitude for the dozen years I’ve spent in this small-but-sunny corner in the sky, especially one with a view like this out my living room windows.

A handful of us gathered on the roof deck on an absolutely gorgeous night, the perfect kind of late spring evening to sit outside and enjoy the twilight while quaffing celebratory glasses of bubbly. There were cheeses and olives, a chilled sweet pea & lettuce soup, and a lemon tart which warrants its own separate post at a later date. This orzo salad ended up being the centerpiece of the meal, and I knew I’d have to immediately make another batch since there were no leftovers. A powerful happy memory associated with a particular recipe will also prompt me to recreate a great dish over and over, perhaps as a way of prolonging the original memory. Maybe that’s another reason why I keep making this orzo salad, in addition to the fact that it’s just downright yummy. How could I not keep making a dish now permanently linked in my mind to an evening celebrating with dear friends who have made the past dozen years far richer and livelier than anything I could have ever dreamed of once upon a time?

Adapted from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten.

The original recipe includes oven-roasted shrimp, but I omitted that for the sake of my vegetarian friends. I know that peas are not exactly a comparable protein substitute for shrimp, but I thought that they would amp up the vegetable quotient of this salad, and I found that I quite enjoyed their presence here. I tossed in some fresh mint that I had on hand, even though the original recipe calls for only dill and flat-leaf parsley. But honestly, I think you could throw in just about any combination of vegetables and herbs within a Mediterranean profile and you would have happy results.

½ cup olive oil
½ cup fresh lemon juice (grate some of the lemon zest in for good measure, if you like)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper

1 lb. orzo pasta
2 cups frozen petite peas, thawed
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled and seeded, cut into ½ inch chunks
1 cup scallions, thinly sliced
½ cup red onion, finely diced
2 cups mixed fresh dill/mint/flat-leaf parsley (I use equal parts of these three herbs, but feel free to adjust the proportions according to your taste)
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Make the dressing by mixing the olive oil, lemon juice and zest (if using), salt and pepper together in a small bowl.

Cook the orzo in boiling salted water according to the package directions. About two minutes before the end of the suggested cooking time, add the thawed frozen peas to the pot. When the pasta is al dente, drain the pasta and peas in a colander and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the lemon dressing while the mixture is hot and toss well to coat.

Add the diced cucumber, scallions, red onion, and mixed herbs. Toss well to combine, and then add the crumbled feta cheese. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper and/or more olive oil or lemon as necessary. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. Makes 6 main course servings or 8 smaller servings.


Laura said...

Delicious salad, Louise. Thanks so much for the lovely post & recipe! Jeff isn't a fan of feta so I used goat cheese with herbs instead. Yummy! Always love reading your blog!

louise said...

Thanks for trying out this recipe, Laura! I've thought about substituting goat cheese for the feta in this salad, so I'm glad that it works well. And thanks for commenting--I'm always happy to know who is reading and cooking from this blog!