When I was growing up, eating out usually meant going to an Asian restaurant or an American fast food joint. Our very rare visits to sit-down, non-Asian restaurants were big deals, and we mostly went to chain restaurants. One favorite was the Macaroni Grill, and I always ordered the exact same dish: salmon with a side of sun-dried tomato orzo pasta.
I ordered it not because I loved the salmon, but because that orzo was just so delicious. Flecked with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, the tender pasta wasn’t drowned in tomato or cream sauce like most of the other dishes at the restaurant, and I couldn’t get enough.
This was the first dish I ever tried to recreate by taste memory. I remembered little bits of sweet onion and feeling like the orzo was cooked in some kind of broth or stock. So I browned some onion in olive oil, toasted the orzo in the oil, then added canned chicken broth a little at a time until the orzo was tender. After I stirred in some spinach (I skipped the sundried tomatoes), I took a taste and did my first happy dance in the kitchen. It tasted like I was at Macaroni Grill! Maybe this was an early sign that I would eventually develop recipes for a living.
Cooking orzo this way soon became routine, and I made this dish often after I was married. It paired so well with seafood or with meats, and if we added enough vegetables, became both our starch and our vegetable side all in one dish. Spinach is a great stir-in, but I now prefer it with frozen peas, lemon zest, and Parmesan, since those are always in my kitchen.
The ingredients are really flexible, but the one thing I always do is make sure that the onion isn’t just cooked until softened, but cooked until golden-brown before the orzo is added. The browned onion imparts a deeper, more savory flavor, so I never rush that step.
The finished orzo is always flavorful since it’s cooked in broth, but lighter and quicker cooking than risotto. Vegetable broth works great here if you want to keep it vegetarian, but since it’s a dominant flavor in the orzo, make sure you go with one you really like the taste of.
This dish can easily be a main with a poached or fried egg on top, but is just as comfortable on the sidelines next to a protein.
Stir often once the orzo goes in to make sure it cooks evenly and doesn’t burn, but treat it as a meditative practice, maybe with a glass of wine in hand and some tunes playing in the background. Happy dancing optional.
One-Pot Orzo With Peas and Parmesan
Serves 4 as a main dish; 6 as a side
- 1/2 medium yellow onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 medium lemon
- 1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 3/4 cup or scant 1/2 cup store-bought grated), plus more for serving if desired
- 12 ounces dried orzo pasta (about generous 1 1/2 cups)
- 1 (32-ounce) box low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 3/4 cup frozen peas
- Coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)
Dice the onion. Mince the garlic cloves.
Melt the butter or heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of the kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally and reducing the heat as needed so the onions don’t burn, until very soft and light golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, finely grate the zest of the lemon (about 1 1/2 packed teaspoons), then juice half the lemon. If needed, finely grate Parmesan cheese.
Add the garlic and orzo to the pot and cook until fragrant and toasty-smelling, about 2 minutes. Add the broth and the remaining 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring frequently to keep the orzo from sticking, until the orzo is tender and almost all of the liquid is absorbed, 10 to 12 minutes. If the orzo has absorbed all the liquid before it’s ready, add water 2 tablespoons at a time as needed.
Remove from the heat. Add the frozen peas and the Parmesan and stir until the peas are just heated through and the cheese is melted, about 1 minute. Stir in the lemon zest and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Taste and season with more lemon juice and kosher salt as needed. Serve garnished with chopped parsley and more Parmesan cheese if desired.
Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to four days. Add a little water or broth to loosen when reheating.
To cook 16 ounces orzo, use 4 tablespoons butter or olive oil, 1 small yellow onion, 4 garlic cloves, 1 box low-sodium broth, 1 cup water, 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, 1 cup frozen peas, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt. Use the same amount of lemon zest and lemon juice, and cook in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot.
Four cups of baby spinach can be used in place of the peas; stir until wilted.
Christine Gallary is food editor-at-large for TheKitchn.com, a nationally known blog for people who love food and home cooking. Submit any comments or questions to email@example.com. Copyright 2021 Apartment Therapy. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.