I grew up in a family (and an era) when pasta pretty much meant spaghetti. My best friend across the street was Italian and her family was “exotic” because they had lasagne and jumbo shells and manicotti. I tried every chance I could to eat at their house for dinner when this wonderfulness was being served.
So it is no surprise that I was, oh, in my 50s when I learned about orzo — and immediately fell in love, determined to find as many recipes as I could to use this delightful mini-pasta. This casserole is a winner in my book. I’ve served it as a main dish and as a side. Your choice. Either way works.
We had friends visiting Saturday night who we hadn’t seen in a number of years. In other words, the premium was on catching up, not cooking. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t want to serve something tasty. (In fact, I think the bar gets even higher when you’re cooking for someone you haven’t seen in a while don’t you? Kind of a culinary version of dress to impress…)
Anyway, this casserole features orzo, which is a pasta I only discovered a few years ago but fell in love with. I’m not sure if it’s the shape or size but orzo just tastes better than a lot of other pastas. And I think it also allows other flavors to come out more fully. It doesn’t overwhelm.
The casserole also features pesto, which is one of my favorite sauces ever. Again, not overwhelming but totally flavorful. You can make it yourself, using Rachel’s recipe) or buy some (which, I’m not gonna lie, is what I did this time).
You’re going to have to trust me on how marvelous this casserole looks. By the time it came out of the oven, just a little alcohol had been consumed….and taking a photo was no longer on my to-do list.
serves 6, more if a side dish
1 pound orzo
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 orange bell pepper, cored and diced
1 onion, minced
2/3 cup pesto
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9X13 baking pan.
Boil some water and cook the orzo until al dente. Drain. Put back in the large pot.
While the orzo is cooking, saute the onion, garlic and pepper in some olive oil until the vegetables start to get soft. Add to the orzo in the pot.
Stir in the pesto and mozzarella into the pot. Salt and pepper to taste. Spread into the baking pan, sprinkle the Parmesan on top and baked for 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the orzo is done. Serve it up.
Janet here: It’s hotter than Hades here in the Northeast, a distinct difference from the Bay area in California where the top temperature last week was about 75 degrees. I have to say I did not miss the heat and humidity of the Northeast. But here I am and so I decided to offer up something on the cool side for a hot night. Yes, you have to cook the orzo and quickly roast the shrimp either on the grill or in the oven, but that’s temporary heat my friends. Add a little bread and you’ve got a complete (and delicious I might add) meal.
Roasted Shrimp and Orzo Salad
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa at Home
salt and olive oil
1/2 pound orzo
1/3 cup lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (I am kind of a fanatic about this part)
1/2 cup minced scallions, white and green parts
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 small cucumber, peeled and diced in medium pieces
1/3 cup red onion, diced
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
Heat oven to 400 degrees
Fill a pot with salted water with a splash of olive oil. Bring the water to a boil and add the orzo. Simmer for about 10 minutes until al dente. Drain and put in a large bowl.
Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour over hot pasta and stir well.
Place the shrimp on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine and then spread in a single layer. Roast about 5 minutes. Don’t overcook.
Add the shrimp to the orzo. Add the scallions, dill, parsley, cucumber, onion and salt and pepper to taste. Toss well. Add feta and stir. Set aside at room temperature for 1 hour to allow flavors to blend or refrigerate overnight. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
Janet here: Much as I enjoy cooking, there are certainly days when I walk in the house, exhausted, and all I want is for dinner to magically appear. And while I love, love, love my man, Peter, with the exception of going out to dinner (we don’t live in a take-out or deliver-in area, sadly), if I don’t cook it, we don’t eat. It’s one reason why I find a man who cooks so hot — only in my mind of course.
Anyway, it’s good to have a couple of go-to, fast recipes for days like these. This one from Ellie Krieger’s So Easy is just that. If you have pasta and frozen shrimp on hand, all you’ve got to do is add a little basil and a tomato and you are good to go.
What’s your I-Don’t-Want-to-Cook-But-I-Have-To dinner?
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 pounds large shrimp (20-25 per pound) peeled and deveined (I keep a pound frozen in my freezer all the time just for nights like this.)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
3/4 cup dry white whine
1 1/2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup finely-chopped fresh basil (I used dried and it was fine)
3 cups cooked orzo pasta
Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet until not but not smoking. Add the shrimp and cook, turning once, until just cooked, about 2 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.
Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to the oil and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the wine and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Stire in the tomatoes and basil and season the sauce with salt and pepper. Return the shrimp to the pan and cook until just heated through. Serve with the orzo.
Added idea: a little crumbled feta works very well with this combination.
Rachel here: Oh, fast dinner. On those days that feel interminable, dinner can feel like the last great mountain to climb before release. As I head into my last few weeks of school, I anticipate more and more of those (in addition to feeling more and more exhausted as this baby grows). Anyway, I keep vowing to make a big batch of pasta sauce (because homemade pasta sauce is far superior to store-bought) to have on hand for evenings such as this but, alas, it hasn’t happened yet. And so, this week I’ve turned to my tried-and-true friend, the quesadilla. See my take on this quick and easy staple here. How do you navigate this type of evening?
Rachel here: For this post, we decided to explore alternatives to the traditional pasta with tomato sauce. Now, this isn’t because either one of us can’t get down with some good old spaghetti. No, that’s not it at all. It’s just that it’s nice to utilize staple ingredients in less common ways from time to time and pasta is nothing if not a staple. I vividly recall the dish my mom has posted below from growing up. It’s quite tasty and this is coming from somebody who basically avoids cauliflower and broccoli like the plague. My soup recipe was the byproduct of epicurious (via the November 2004 issue of Bon Appetit) perusing and, though this was the first time I made it, it will definitely be making further appearances on the dinner table in my house. Plus, I’m thinking that this may generally be the way I make meatballs from now on since I have never had them hold up so well (and to stirring, even!) and this is a healthier approach than just cooking them in oil. Anyway, check out our recipes below and then let us know how you like your pasta. Happy eating!
Escarole Soup with Pasta and Meatballs
feeds 4 as a main course, 6 as a starter
3/4 lb. lean ground beef (according to reviews of this recipe turkey works just fine, too, for an even healthier alternative)
1 1/3 c. fresh grated parmesan (divide into 1/3 c. and 1 c. units)
1/2 c. fresh breadcrumbs from crustless french bread
1 large egg
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tspn. salt
1/2 tspn. fresh ground pepper
7 1/2 c. low sodium chicken broth
2 T. olive oil
2 large celery stalks (including tops), chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 c. orzo
1 small head of escarole, coarsely torn
In a medium bowl, mix together the first seven ingredients (beef through pepper). Form this mixture into 3/4 inch balls (moisten your hands to prevent sticking to the meat). Heat 1 1/2 c. of the chicken broth with the 2 T. of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add meatballs and simmer until they are firm and hold their shape (roughly 5 minutes). When the meatballs are firm, remove them back to their bowl. Boil remaining liquid until reduced to a glaze. Add onion and celery and stir until they start to soften. Add the remaining 6 c. of chicken broth, the meatballs (along with any juices) and the orzo to the pot. Simmer until pasta is soft (roughly ten minutes) and season with salt and pepper as needed. Add the escarole and simmer until it wilts (roughly 5 minutes). Ladle into bowls, top with remaining parmesan cheese and enjoy.
one head of cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces
one medium onion, choppped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 ounce can of your favorite diced tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
about 3/4 teaspoon oregano
about 3/4 teaspoon basil
about 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound spaghetti (I prefer thin but that’s just me)
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the chopped onions. Saute until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and saute for about 1 minute. Add the cauliflower and saute for about 5 minutes until it’s just start to get tender. Add the tomatoes and seasonings. Let simmer for about 15 minutes until the cauliflower is cooked the way you like (I like my vegetables crunchy).
While the cauliflower mixture is simmering, fill a pot with about 4 quarts of water and salt it. When boiling, add the pasta and cook until it’s the way you like it (I prefer al dente), about 10 minutes or so.
Drain the pasta, place portions on the plate, add the cauliflower mixture, top with Parmesan and you are ready to go.
Rachel here: Seriously? I have an awesome husband. Not to gloat, but I really do, and only one of the reasons is that he is a great cook. Throughout our relationship he has been making me linguini (almost always freshly made with his own two hands) with clams and other various undersea creatures, and every time he does, it feels wonderfully decadent, partly because I have never made clams in my life and so it’s a food I feel like I access through his culinary prowess. The other night, though, I asked him to teach me how one deals with these little shelled critters, and he did. John doesn’t use recipes; he just thinks about food and then makes it and so, what you’ll find below are loose guidelines for approaching a seriously delicious (and, to my surprise, rather easy if you don’t make the pasta) and hearty dinner.
linguini (As I mentioned above, John usually makes it fresh; this time we bought it freshly made at the grocery store)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced (depending on how garlicky you like your food)
1 small shallot, diced
chicken stock (see recipe)
white wine (see recipe)
2 T. butter
clams (we used 8 small ones per person, although John prefers using the large ones–and thus fewer per person–for better flavor)
2+ T. parsley, chopped
grape tomatoes, large handful, cut in half
Make your linguini, cooking it until it is nearly done. Remove from heat and douse in cold water to stop the cooking. If you are using fresh pasta, toss with olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. Wash your clams. In a large pan, saute the shallot and then the garlic. Add 1/2 c. to 1 c. white wine and 1/2 c. to 1 c. chicken stock (using less will make a less brothy meal, more will make it brothier…this second way is how we prefer it) plus the 2 T. butter to pan. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon in and add the clams. Cover the pan and simmer until the clams are cooked. Once the clams are cooked (they’ll all be open now), add the pasta, parsley and a large handful of grape tomatoes. Other additions that are yummy include capers, chili flakes, or a little cayenne. Serve with crusty bread and a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Janet here: I am a huge shrimp fan and was very excited to discover this recipe in Ellie Krieger’s cookbook, The Food You Crave. My parents loved to eat out and on Saturday nights, we often traveled an hour away to a restaurant my dad had somehow discovered in the pre-internet era in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. Cows munched contentedly in a field across from the farmhouse restaurant. Inside, my sister and I had run of the place while my parents enjoyed a cocktail with the innkeeper before we ordered dinner in front of a roaring fire.
Shrimp cocktail was one of my favorite hors d’oeuvres. I felt so grown up munching on jumbo shrimp and sipping my Shirley Temple (later named a Barbra Streisand by my father when I was older). This baked shrimp with tomatoes and feta isn’t the same obviously, but if you love shrimp, you’ll love this. I served it over orzo, which worked quite well.
Baked Shrimp with Tomatoes and Feta
serves 4 (with plenty for leftovers)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 14.5 ounc cans diced tomatoes with their juices
1/4 finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh dill (I used dried because I didn’t have fresh and it was fine)
1 1/4 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper or to taste
2/3 cup crumbled feta
Heat oven to 425 degrees
In an ovenproof skillet heat oil over medium high heat. Add the onion; cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, cook one minute. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for about 5 minutes until the tomatoe juices thicken.
Remove from heat. Stir in the parsley, dill, shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Springl the feta over the top. Back until the shrimp are cooked through and the cheese melts, about 12 minutes. Enjoy.