Unless you’re raised in a family whose culinary life embraces orzo, in all likelihood you will encounter orzo some distance down the pasta road, way past stops that include string pasta, lasagna, or fresh anything. Anyone can easily image 5 things to put on top of linguini, but What do you do with orzo?
Here’s the answer – Orzo with Farm Greens, Ricotta, Parmesan, Pecorino and Hot Pepper. It’s a little Greek, a little Italian, very easy, tastes delicious and (speaking from experience) makes great leftovers because it’s so friendly to after-the-fact stir-ins (personal favorite – leftover low-cooked salmon). Orzo’s creamy texture means that almost any dish in which it’s used drifts toward comfort food, and if you include cheese, regardless of the other ingredients, the effect is heightened – creamy, unctuous, satisfying.
Adapt the recipe to incorporate the greens you have on hand, removing stems only as needed. Long, leafless stems on dandelion greens should be trimmed, but dandelion stems with leaves all the way to the end may need only to have the bases cut away; leave tender and unbruised stems of fresh spinach intact. Large chard leaves should be separated from the stems – because of different cooking times, not because the stems should be discarded. And of course everything needs a good rinse (especially dandelion greens, which can be sandy). Enjoy.
ORZO WITH FARM GREENS, RICOTTA, PARMESAN, PECORINO AND HOT PEPPER
- 1½ pounds greens: I used 8 ounces spinach, 8 ounces chard, 8 ounces dandelion
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound orzo
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, cut into ¼-inch dice, about 2 cups
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 small red chili pepper, minced
- Zucchini, about 8 ounces, ends trimmed and cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 red pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 cup assorted chopped herbs: the bulk should be parsley, mint, dill, fennel, and basil, accented by some oregano, thyme, rosemary
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ cups ricotta cheese
- ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese + additional for grating
- ¼ cup grated pecorino cheese
- Wash the greens. Trim the ends. Strip the leaves off the chard stems.
- Remove the strings from the chard stems and cut the stems into ¼-inch pieces.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt. It should taste like the sea. Cook the greens in batches until tender, starting with the sweetest and ending with the most bitter. In order, I cooked: spinach – 2 minutes; chard leaves – 1 minute; chard stems – 3½ minutes; dandelion greens – 3½ minutes.
- Plunge the greens into ice water to stop the cooking. Trick – Put the colander on top of the ice water so it’s easy to remove the greens
- When cool, drain, squeeze dry and chop so the pieces are about 1/2 inch.
- Discard the water in the pot, fill with fresh water, and put back on the stove to bring to a boil.
- Heat the oil in a large deep-sided pan. Add the onions and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili pepper, zucchini and red pepper and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the greens and cook 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- When the water in the pot comes to a boil, Season generously with salt. It should taste like the sea. Add the orzo and stir until it comes back to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 7 minutes.
- Scoop out 2 cups of pasta water and reserve.
- Strain the orzo through a colander and dump into the pan with the greens. Stir to combine.
- Turn the heat to medium low under the orzo. Add the herbs and ricotta and stir to combine, adding pasta water as necessary to make it a little creamy and risotto-like. You will need between ½ and 1 cup of water.
- Stir in the grated cheeses. Add more water if necessary.
- Taste and season with salt and pepper.
- Serve immediately.
My family used to eat a lot of boxed rice pilaf and like everyone else I wondered, What ARE those little dark things mixed with the rice? My first guess was that they were “pilafs,” whatever “pilafs” were. Then I learned pilaf was a technique for making rice and I figured the dark things were pine nuts… except they weren’t. They didn’t taste, feel or smell like nuts. Then the penny dropped – they were toasted ORZO! I felt cheated and for years I harbored a bias against this poor little pasta, as though it had personally participated in deceiving me.
But once I started cooking with orzo, I became a fan. I love the texture. It gets creamy while still holding it’s al dente status. In the mid-’80s when I was cooking in a gourmet food store making bulk salads for the to-go case, orzo salad with feta, artichokes and lemon was a favorite. Pantazis Deligiannis, our Greek chef at Saloniki, makes a soupy orzo with greens, dill and lots of graviera cheese. It’s addictive.
The orzo recipe here was inspired by Pantazis’ dish, but informed by the contents of my fridge and the bounty at a farmers market. It’s more Italian than Greek. We had a tub of ricotta, hot and sweet peppers, and a couple of blocks of Parmesan and pecorino that we’d bought as COVID 19 pantry stock in mid March. And then I went to the farmer’s market and vegetables told me what to do. Atlas Farm had stunning zucchini, dandelion greens, Swiss chard, spinach and dill. In the potted herb garden in my back garden I had mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and bronze fennel. (I’d read that aphids don’t like fennel and marigold so I bought a bunch of plants and put them around my tomato plants.). Also the nasturtium garnish is from a pot on my back steps.
Don’t worry about following the ingredients list exactly. If you can’t get dandelion greens, use more spinach. If you don’t like dill, leave it out.
This dish will make a perfectly respectable Sunday night supper all on its own or, if you’re wondering what else to make while the chicken roasts, here you go – a great side dish.
When reheating, add a little water to make it creamy again.