Keeping a few core ingredients on hand means we can go home at the end of a long day and put a meal together with little-to-no planning. Whether you call this pantry cooking or just being well organized, once you understand the way you want to cook and eat, a candid assessment of the recipes we make most often will reveal what these ingredients should be.
One of mine is orzo. Also called riso. Or risoni. This is small, rice-shaped pasta that is used most familiarly in Italian and Greek cuisines. As often happens in the global kitchen, these words have some other meanings, as how in Italian "orzo" actually means barley. Or elsewhere, both in Europe and the US, it's shorthand for a roasted barley coffee-like-but-no-caffeine hot beverage.
But when I say orzo I mean the little grains of pasta, made from durum wheat, like other dried pasta. It's cooked in salted boiling water or stock and can be either be drained and served at room temperature in a salad, added to other ingredients in a cooked dish, or switched out for rice or grain in any number of recipes.
Most of the commercial pasta producers make orzo, including Barilla and DeCecco, which calls its version "riso." Some lesser known pasta makers, such as Garofalo, also have orzo in their product line. I often find that our grocers tend to stock the same eight or ten pasta shapes -- spaghetti, capellini, linguine, rigatoni, shells, penne, elbows, farfalle, rotini, and maybe a couple of others -- and almost always, they're larger pieces or long strands. Looking for smaller pastas, whether it's orzo, ditalini, tubetti, or tiny pastina stars, can sometimes take a bit of a search, although orzo is the most commonly found of these "soup cuts" of pasta.
Besides its versatility, orzo can give us ways to enjoy pasta without it seeming to be a major carb commitment. Many I know are always watching how much pasta we eat and how often, but we still often want, as my mother always called it, a "starch." Using orzo in a salad or soup, or with vegetables, or as part of a baked casserole gives us the satisfaction of pasta without it being too much.
The Keys To Cooking Orzo
When a pasta shape is very small, as with orzo, cooking techniques make the difference between success and failure. Here are three that are key:
- Do not overcook it. If there's ever been the need to cook pasta al dente, orzo makes the case because if it's overcooked, it turns to mush. Most brands say to cook the pasta for 9 to 10 minutes, but edit this back to about seven minutes and keep testing until it's just barely done. The goal is to have the orzo be tender to the tooth (i.e., al dente) but with the "grains" of pasta still separate. Also, because orzo is almost always mixed with something else -- added to a gratin, or dressed with vinaigrette, or added to soup -- it will continue to soften and if you begin with a fully (or over) cooked orzo, it will end up squishy.
- Orzo can stick together and become a clump. This is particularly a problem when you're cooking orzo to then add to a salad or use in a stuffed tomato or zucchini. While I am an ardent opponent to adding olive oil to pasta cooking water, this is a time when a little can help keep the finished orzo from sticking together. The alternative is to drain the cooked orzo, transfer it to a bowl and drizzle a scant teaspoon or so of olive oil and give it a stir to very lightly coat the grains, but use a very light hand -- this is not dressing.
- Toasted orzo adds color and flavor. Toasting is nice to do when mixing the orzo with rice in pilaf but you can also use toasted orzo as the main ingredient in a risotto-like dish in which the orzo takes the place of Arborio rice or a grain like barley. To toast it, place a little oil or half oil/half butter in a hot pan and add the uncooked orzo, stir until coated and cook until the little pieces of pasta take on a golden color. The toasting will also add a slightly nutty flavor. Then proceed with your recipe.
Cooking With Orzo
Orzo can be used in pilafs, added to soups, tossed with vegetables, used in pasta salads, and as the basis for side dishes in place of rice or grains. Its small size is a factor in how it's used and the kind of ingredients served with it. Here are examples of some of my favorite ways to cook with orzo:
- In soup. Friend and fellow city cook Katherine Ryden, who married into a Greek family, passed along her husband's mother's recipe for Avgolemeno Soup that was shared with her by his Aunt Chrysafou who'd make her broth with a hen. If you want to do the same, you can often find hens for making stock at farmers' markets, especially this time of year. See our link.
- SmittenKitchen.com also has a very appealing recipe for Escarole and Orzo Soup with Meatballs.
- Another classic Greek recipe combines shrimp with orzo and feta cheese. FoodTV.com has Ina Garten's version.
- While some home cooks use little egg noodles or vermicelli broken into small pieces when making rice pilaf, I prefer orzo because its shape is the same as the rice. When you first add the orzo and rice to the melted butter for toasting before adding stock, the little pieces of orzo take on more color than the rice, revealing the two ingredients in the finished dish. See our link for our article and recipe for making rice pilaf, one of my favorite go-to recipes.
- Orzo can help stretch other ingredients while adding a complimentary ingredient that doesn't compete for flavor. For example, if you like to roast vegetables and want to make more servings with the vegetables you have, add cooked orzo to the finished vegetables. This is particularly tasty when orzo is combined with roasted asparagus, or carrots, or wedges of radicchio. Let any extra olive oil or seasonings that remain from the roasted vegetables provide the main way to help the orzo and vegetables come together. You can also add cooked orzo to cooked and chopped pieces of kale, spinach or other hearty green; season with little pieces of cooked garlic and grated cheese, or just salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
- For anyone who likes to bring their lunch to work, or cooks for potluck dinners and wants something that's easy to transport, orzo salad is an excellent choice. The tiny grains of pasta work really well with crunchy chopped vegetables and a tangy mustard vinaigrette, as in this make-it-up-from-the refrigerator salad: Cook a cup of orzo in salted water until it's barely al dente. Drain, transfer to a serving bowl, toss with a teaspoon of olive oil and let it come to room temperature. While it's cooling, assemble about two cups of chopped raw vegetables. These can be halved cherry tomatoes, thin slices of fennel, raw button mushrooms, diced red onion, or whatever you have on hand and that you think will combine well together. When the orzo is completely cooled, add the chopped vegetables plus a few shredded fresh basil leaves or dabs of goat cheese. In a little bowl combine a tablespoon of red wine or balsamic vinegar, two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (remember that you've already put a little oil on the orzo), salt, pepper, and about a half teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Whisk with a fork to combine and pour over the orzo salad. Toss gently to combine.
- As a side dish, orzo can be as simple or complex as you have interest or time. Cook orzo in salted boiling water until al dente, drain and immediately toss it with a little unsalted butter, a generous amount of grated Parmesan, and several grinds of black pepper for the flavor of a Roman cacio e pepe with none of the work.
- Just as easy, you can cook orzo, drain it and drizzle with a little good olive oil and add a handful of chopped fresh herbs and thin slices of scallions to make a perfect and quick side dish for grilled fish or roasted chicken.
- Or for something more elaborate, Bobby Flay toasts orzo to serve with lamb shanks and roasted tomatoes in his recipe from FoodTV. See our link.
Orzo is the kind of ingredient that you can make your own. Plus a little box goes a long way, just the kind of thing we like when managing our food budgets.