Updated: Jun 3
At first, they turned their noses to it. All my kids. It had too many colorful veggies, a green mixture and feta. "What in the world is feta?" asked my son. But then, because I don't take no for an answer often, I begged them to try it, just this once. And, if you don't like it, spit it out and never try it again.
Well....here we are, making it in double batches now, because simply, one batch is not enough. Orzo salad in a pistou* with broccoli, sun dried tomatoes, toasted pignoli nuts (pine nuts), raw red onions, cucumber and feta. It's like a melting pot of Mediterranean cuisine.
Orzo, Italian for "barley" due to its resemblance to the grain in its unprocessed form, is a small rice-shaped pasta. It's classified among pasta as "pastina" — a category of tiny shapes commonly used for soups and salads.
* Pistou is an olive oil—based basil sauce from the south of France that closely resembles Ligurian pesto. There's only one way to make true pistou—by hand. Tear the basil leaves into pieces first, then grind the leaves against the side of a mortar with a pestle to puree them into a silky, creamy sauce. Like its Italian twin, pistou can also be served as an accompaniment to grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables.
I'm guessing you're wondering why I didn't call the olive oil-based sauce a pesto. Well, that's because a "pesto" has ground pignoli (pine) nuts in it. A pistou is sans the pignolis. But they are in the salad, so in essence you are eating a deconstructed pesto sauce.
You will see below that I defied the laws of French and Italian cooking and made my pistou....in a food processor.... blasphemy, I know. I have the mortar and pestle, and if I were making it with friends, I would certainly want to get the entire group involved and make it the "proper" way, by hand. It gives an authentic and fun component and that probably makes the entire salad taste that much better.
Pesto, my dear readers is for another blog. Summertime when the basil is growing like weeds and the air is perfumed with its bouquet, we will be making the best pesto outside of Liguria Italy! I promise you that. (I only now realize I’ve binged Bridgerton - and no, I’m not Lady Whistledown 😉)
What is orzo?
Orzo pasta is made with semolina flour, which in turn is made of durum wheat. What can be confusing is that it's categorized in the grain food group, and can be made with whole-wheat flour, but it's not a whole grain. And despite its similarities to rice, it is definitively not gluten-free. But you can still enjoy it if you're counting carbs.
However, I must warn you. This pasta is made in large quantities in my house because eating one bowl is just not doable.
Double recipes last two days. Consumed almost constantly until eaten in its entirety, this orzo salad makes a great side dish, or when paired with a grilled or roasted protein, a great meal.
As with most pastas, it's worth spending a little more for a quality brand that uses semolina with a higher protein content. This creates a sturdier pasta that stands up better to cooking without getting gummy or mushy. You can find orzo in multiple colors — black from squid ink, green from spinach or orange from tomato — but the flavor remains primarily the same.
Let's get cooking the Orzo salad before Enrico bites my head off!
Cooking Class with Carol
Things to Consider
In all the times I've made this dish, I feel like I found the most efficient methods.
heat water for blanching the broccoli. Use the same water for cooking the pasta.
dice the onion while you're toasting the pine nuts
julienne the sun-dried tomatoes (you can reconstitute (or rehydrate by adding a small amount of boiling water to them and let stand 10 minutes) them or not. it's your call.)
I do not reconstitute them because I feel the heat from the cooked ingredients will give them enough heat to rehydrate slightly. And I like the chewy texture of sun-dried tomatoes)
Add onions, nuts and sun-dried tomatoes before the blanched broccoli goes into the bowl. The residual heat of the broccoli will wilt the onions slightly and take on the flavor of the pine nuts.
Pignoli nuts from Italy are hard to find. I use 1 cup in this recipe. Find the best nuts for your budget. Save the Italian pine nuts for the pesto I talked about above. It'll only have 5 ingredients and well, we know that with few ingredients, only the best will do.
Use good pecorino or parmesan cheese. Not necessarily the best...I tend to buy already grated for this recipe... for the same reason I use the food processor. It's a quick meal to a hungry crowd. Save the freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano /Pecorino Romano for the summer pesto.
Don't skimp on the pasta. Orzo should be al dente and you don't want it mushy. A good quality semolina pastina will make the best salad. Cook for one minute under the suggested directions on the box. They will continue to residually cook once you toss with the salad.
2 pounds orzo pasta
2 cups Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (or Parmigiana Reggiano if you prefer)
7 oz. fresh basil (the large container from Giant Eagle)
2 -3 broccoli crowns, cut to 1/4' pieces
3 cloves garlic
1 cup or more Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cucumbers, peeled and diced, 1/4" thick
12 oz. feta cheese
1 medium red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
salt and pepper (to taste)
What To Do
1. Add cold water to a heavy bottom stock pot 3/4 of the way full, turn heat on high until gently rolling boil.
2. Dice red onions and julien sun-dried tomatoes. Add to extra large mixing bowl.
3. heat dry sauté pan on medium flame, add pine nuts. Gently mix. Toast in pan for 5-7 minutes, stirring or flipping occasionally so the nuts do not burn. You should smell their fragrant aroma. Remove from heat and add on top of red onions to mixing bowl. The heat of the pine nuts will sweat the onions slightly. You will begin to smell the onions aroma.
4. cut broccoli into 1/4-inch pieces.
5. Once water comes to bowl, add salt to water. Add broccoli. Blanch in water until broccoli turns a vibrant green, about 2 minutes. You want the broccoli crunchy.
Remove broccoli with slotted spoon draining excess water and add to mixing bowl on top of the other ingredients. The heat from the broccoli will continue to wilt the onions and reconstitute (slightly) the sun-dried tomatoes.
6. Add all above ingredient to extra large mixing bowl.
7. In the food processor, add peeled garlic and 1 tsp. of salt. Pulse to mince garlic.
8. Add basil leaves. Normally I'd have you tear them, but the blade will do that.
9. Add grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Pulse for 8-10 seconds or until the mixture comes together. It will look like breadcrumbs
10. Close lid and drizzle 1 cup (or more) Extra Virgin Olive Oil to the mixture. The pistou will begin to tighten then loosen when the olive oil is poured. Taste for seasoning. It shouldn't need much salt due to the cheese but taste it just the same. Set aside until pasta is cooked.
11. Keep the remaining water and add more if needed. Bring back to boil and add orzo cooking according to the package directions, minus one minute.
12. Once pasta is at "al dente" (that's cooking time minus one minute), drain pasta in colander and add immediately and directly to the mixing bowl. Do Not Rinse.
13. If the bowl is large enough spread out the mixed pasta to allow it to cool slightly. This technique will allow it to cool enough so the pasta will not overcook and become mushy. You can also put the pasta on a sheet pan to cool slightly. The pistou should be fully incorporated into the noodles.
14. If the bowl is large enough spread out the mixed pasta to allow it to cool slightly. This technique will allow it to cool enough so the pasta will not overcook and become mushy. You can also put the pasta on a sheet pan to cool slightly. The pistou should be fully incorporated into the noodles.
15. Once the salad is cooled slightly, add the feta crumbles (either directly with your hands or your purchased crumbled feta). You don't wat to add the feta too early, if the pasta is too hot the feta will melt. Add cucumbers.
16. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Adjust the sauce (pistou) by adding more olive oil, if too dry.