Please Play With Your Orzo

In just a matter of days, kids of all ages are headed back to school, an exciting rite of passage for kindergarteners and college freshmen alike. I always loved the smell of a new lunchbox, the anticipation of meeting new teachers and making new friends, the shopping for new school supplies. Everything is new and seems fresh, at least for a little while.

All this reminiscing has me thinking about school lunches -- and what we can do at home to make them more interesting, tastier and yes, healthier.

Orzo flavored with grated zucchini, onion and herbs. (Kim O'Donnel)

You know how it seems like every kid goes through a phase of eating plain noodles with butter and/or shredded cheese? I want to build upon that noodle-y foundation, add a few tweaks and turn it into a dish that all students of life would embrace.

I'm talking about orzo, the cute little pasta that looks and acts like rice. It also straddles the borders of Italy and Greece, finding its way into both cuisines, in soups, stews as well as rice-like sides. In Italian, orzo means "barley," referring to its shape, but I like the reference to the word "manestra" which is Greek for cantaloupe seeds, which seems a more accurate description.

To make things even more confusing, there's another rice-shaped pasta called riso, the very same word for plain old rice. Capisce?

The chameleon quality of orzo, however, is exactly what makes it so appealing, particularly if you turn it into a salad. Unlike other pasta salads which tend to be bulky and uneven in flavor, orzo has the benefit of a slim shape and size, which makes for a more refined, less gut-filling result.

And because of its rice shape, orzo requires far less saucing and vinaigrette-ing and welcomes more delicate, veg-heavy treatment -- as you may find in a pilaf. As a result, orzo makes a great portable lunch for those plain-noodle kids, without worry of reheating a mountain of spaghetti.

It had been many years since I cooked with orzo, and now I'm wondering why I waited so long. What a nice change! While the orzo boiled, I grated a zucchini and some onion for some time in a skillet with olive oil, along with some fresh oregano from the back yard for good measure.

As I combined the cooked orzo and shredded veggies, my improv nature kicked in, so I added some fresh basil as well as a handful of sun gold tomatoes sitting on the dining room table. It worked beautifully with the planked piece of salmon right off the grill, and there are plenty of orzo leftovers for a rockin' schoolhouse lunch. Race ya to the cafeteria...

Recipe below the jump.

Zucchini Orzo
Inspired by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Olive oil, as needed
1/2 medium onion, grated on coarse edge
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 large zucchini, grated on coarse edge
fresh thyme or oregano (optional)
2 cups orzo pasta
salt to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano
Squeeze of 1/2 lemon


Gather grated vegetables into a ball, with your hands, squeeze out water, until nearly dry.

Over medium heat, add enough olive oil to coat bottom of a skillet and heat for a minute. Add onion, garlic and zucchini, and with a wooden spoon, stir occasionally to minimize burning. Add herbs, if using, and cook until slightly golden; the mixture may even have a little crust. Turn off heat and add salt to taste.
Meanwhile, add water to a medium saucepan and bring up to a boil. Add salt and orzo, cooking until al dente, about 8 or 9 minutes.

Drain pasta and pour into a serving bowl. Add a spritz of olive oil for slickness, then cheese and cooked zucchini-onion mixture. Stir until well combined, and taste for salt and pepper. Add lemon.

Serve at room temperature or cold. Makes four or five side-dish servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 13, 2007; 11:38 AM ET Dinner Tonight , School Lunch Rock , Vegetarian/Vegan
Previous: Veggie Lunchbox and Shrimp 'Veins' With a Side of Hot Fudge | Next: Getting Fresh: An Okra Valentine


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We, too, have wondered why it has taken so long to use orzo for something other than Italian Wedding Soup. It is a neat substitute for rice. Cooked in a little chicken broth and then combined with cooked onion and whatever other veggies we have around, and topped with a little shredded cheese, it makes a wonderful side dish. Thanks for the recipe. That gives me even more inspiration.

Posted by: peapod | August 13, 2007 12:17 PM

I truly love orzo too.
Try this recipe sometime...we served it over orzo and it was fantastic! It would probably be just as good without the fish and turned into a cold salad with a few tweaks. I think I'm going to experiment tonight!!

Broiled Bluefish with Tomato, Olive, and Caper Compote,,FOOD_9936_15885,00.html?rsrc=search

Posted by: tophillyandhomeagain | August 13, 2007 12:57 PM

I tend to make my orzo into a quasi-risotto. Browning onions and bacon, adding the orzo to toast a little, then adding beef broth. When the orzo has taken up all of the broth, I finish it with parmesan cheese. Its hearty and delicious, but more of a winter dish. This sounds like a wonderful summer take on orzo that I'll have to try.

Posted by: helloorzomyoldfriend | August 13, 2007 2:57 PM

I just used orzo in a garden vegetable soup that my kids and I made this week. We collected whatever we had in the garden, lots of cherry tomatoes, purple beans, peppers, onions, garlic, a couple of carrots and some potatoes in chicken broth. We cooked it all together and added the orzo, yummy. I love using orzo as a substitute for rice.

Posted by: Tara | August 14, 2007 8:23 AM

Fabulous! I just inherited a raft of veggies left over from other people's CSA shares, including pattypan squash, very small onions, zucchini, and sungold tomatoes, and I'll definitely try this, but I think I'll go wild and use dill and basil instead of thyme. Can I grate the pattypan squash the same way as I would zucchini?

I grew up eating acini di pepe (tiny pasta pearls) with pesto at my grandmother's house, and I later modified it to orzo - lots more surface area than spaghetti!

Posted by: Reine de Saba | August 14, 2007 8:46 AM

My current favorite use for orzo is in a summer "rice" salad, based on the recipe by the same name at Mix finely chopped red bell pepper, red onion, and green onion, plus plenty of fresh corn, into a bowl of cooked orzo. Top with a dressing (goat cheese, red wine vinegar, a pinch of cumin, and some finely chopped fresh oregano, mixed until smooth). Chives are optional. The recipe offers precise measurements, but this salad is very forgiving and allows for a lot of play and experimentation.

Posted by: brunette | August 14, 2007 10:56 AM

I love using orzo as a sub my for my usual brown rice, which takes so long to cook for a weeknight. But I generally try to only use whole wheat pasta & can't recall seeing w.w. orzo. Has anyone come across the stuff?

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | August 14, 2007 11:01 AM

It exists! But it's usually not with the pasta, for some reason. Try the international aisle, at least in Giant.

Posted by: Whole Wheat Orzo | August 14, 2007 12:04 PM

I love orzo! One of my favorites is a cold orzo salad: I pretty much put anything I have in the fridge in to the salad:
lemon juice
Additional options: pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts!


Posted by: Olguita, DC | August 14, 2007 1:02 PM

About the summer 'rice' salad with orzo in, I can't find it. Oh, brunette, are you still around and can you give a good URL? I'd like to make it with exact amounts before I play with it!

Posted by: Van Ness | August 14, 2007 4:21 PM

You can buy Whole Wheat Orzo from Amazon!

Posted by: Upstate | August 15, 2007 11:28 AM

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