Bright flyers from my kids’ backpacks keep reminding me that summer is almost here. But I wasn’t feeling it until one of my favorite summer dishes floated back into my consciousness this week: orzo salad loaded with well-roasted vegetables and feta cheese, dressed with bright lemon juice. I live on this dish in the summertime, but its light appeal fades quickly with the chill of winter. The mere idea of it this week was like a vitamin D boost. I didn’t have ingredients for the Barefoot Contessa recipe I love, so I made my own variation with what I had on hand: zucchini from the store and fresh mint from my yard. So summery it may be a cure for seasonal affective disorder.
There’s something about fresh herbs that makes even the simplest dish special. I am absurdly excited to have fresh mint growing in my yard right now. It goes to show what a disastrous gardener I am that I consider it a huge success that mint – a plant many consider an invasive weed – is thriving in my presence. My kind friend Jenny, a born nurturer, planted some of her own Kentucky mint in my yard last year. This year I have loads of it: fresh, green and mosquito-repelling, so they say. Those of you lucky enough to have an herb garden can use basil, parsley or whatever aromatic wonders you have. Non-gardeners should find a friend with a mint plant (come on over!), because anyone with a mint plant has mint to spare.
I bypassed the Barefoot Contessa’s oven-roasted vegetables in favor of a quick pan roast of zucchini, onions and garlic in my cast iron skillet. Cooking in the oven can be very convenient, but in the summer it can make for a hot kitchen.
This dish comes together quickly with a little multitasking. Chop and prep while you heat the water for the orzo. Saute the vegetables while the orzo cooks. Drain orzo; add vegetables, mint, lemon zest, olive oil, lemon juice and feta; mix and you’re done.
For anyone avoiding gluten, I think arborio rice would make a great substitute for orzo. You would cook it like pasta – in a large volume of salted water – and then drain. Let me know if you try it, and I’ll do the same.
Here’s the play-by-play:
Set a large pot of water to boil while we get the vegetables ready. First dice onion and zucchini. In case anyone needs a quick tutorial on dicing zucchini, this picture says it all: trim ends off zucchini, cut lengthwise in half, cut each half again lengthwise (for large zucchini you may want to cut it lengthwise in thirds) to make long zucchini sticks. Cut each stick into 1/2-inch pieces.
We also want a couple of garlic cloves minced. They’re not in the picture because I was lazy and squeezed them through my garlic press later.
Chop mint into fine slivers and zest the lemon.
Now time to cook. We need half a pound of orzo.
While orzo is plumping up in its hot salty bath, we can saute the onion, garlic and zucchini. I cooked one batch in my extra-large 12″ cast iron skillet. If you have a regular-sized skillet, you’re better off cooking in two batches. I’m always in a hurry and tend to overload my cookware.
Getting soft, but not cooked enough – we want to mimic oven-roasted vegetables here.
A little extra browning is nice get a bit of caramelization going with the onions. I turned off my heat here, knowing that the cast iron would retain enough heat to continue to cook the vegetables. Season well with salt and pepper.
Now we toss it all together. First drained orzo in a large bowl.
Top with cooked vegetables, lemon zest, slivered mint, olive oil and lemon juice.
Mix gently. Taste for salt and pepper. Add feta and mix one more time.
Garnish with extra mint, feta or both.
This is a fresh, citrusy side dish for summer dinners on the grill. But make plenty, as it may well become the main attraction.
Orzo with Zucchini, Lemon, Mint and Feta
This lovely orzo salad is a perfect accompaniment to grilled fish, shrimp or meat, but I’m happy to add a crisp salad and call it dinner. This basic recipe, inspired by Contessa’s incredible orzo with roasted vegetables recipe, takes well to endless variations. This version uses pan-cooked vegetables for faster preparation.
- 8 oz orzo (rice-shaped pasta)
- 1 1/2 lb (4-5 medium) zucchini, diced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh mint, slivered, plus additional for garnish as desired
- 1 medium lemon (zest and juice)
- 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled or diced, plus additional for garnish as desired
- Extra-virgin olive oil (about 1/2 cup between cooking vegetables and dressing salad)
- Cook orzo to al dente in a large pot of boiling salted water (salty like the sea). Careful not to overcook, or the pasta will be mushy in the salad. Drain in a colander.
- Dice onion and zucchini. (For zucchini cut both ends off and slice in half lengthwise. Cut each half again lengthwise into half or thirds, depending on zucchini size. Cut long zucchini sticks into 1/2-inch pieces.)
- Mince garlic or use garlic press. Add garlic to diced onion and zucchini.
- Zest the lemon using a fine grater or vegetable peeler, mincing any large pieces. Set aside.
- Cut mint into fine slivers. Set aside with lemon zest.
- Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Depending in the size of your skillet, you may need to cook vegetables in two batches. Add onion, zucchini and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and starting to brown. We’re trying to mimic grilled vegetables on the stovetop here, so a bit of extra cooking is nice to get some caramelization from the onions. Season well with salt and pepper.
- Place drained orzo into a large bowl. Top with cooked vegetables (scrape the pan for all the good juices), lemon zest and mint. Drizzle with olive oil (3-4 tablespoons) and juice from the zested lemon. Mix gently. Add feta and mix one final time.
- Top with additional feta or mint as desired. Serve warm or room temperature.
Serves six as a side dish or three as a main course.
- Other fresh herbs, such as basil or parsley, would be excellent substitutes for mint.
- Can make a day ahead and store in refrigerator. To keep it fresh-looking leave out the mint and feta. Before serving, let warm to room temperature and add gently mix in mint and feta.
- For a gluten-free option, try arborio rice. Cook as you would orzo – in large amount of salted water until al dente.
Here’s the link to a printable version.