Spring Orzo Salad

spring orzo salad

Welcome to the April edition of Cucina Conversations! To welcome the arrival of spring, the longer days, and the warmer temperatures (finally!), we are featuring insalate (salads) as our topic. For the past couple of weeks, many of my friends and favorite food bloggers in Italy have been posting photos and stories on Instagram of their trips to the mercati (markets), where every stall is overflowing with an abundance of spring vegetables: fave, asparagus, radishes, agretti, peas, and the first zucchine. Shopping at my grocery store is decidedly less charming than shopping in one of Italy’s open air markets, but here, state-side too, spring vegetables are front-and-center in the produce department. My refrigerator is continually stocked with fresh vegetables year-round to pull together a salad either for lunch or as the last course of dinner, but spring and summer produce is my favorite. Cold pasta salads are one of my favorite things to eat for lunch because they keep for several days (they just get more flavorful), and are satisfying and versatile. They can be made with a variety of pasta shapes and there are multiple “mix-in” ingredients that you can add to them to suit your taste. There is nothing Italian about a cold pasta salad, though–Italians prefer their pasta served hot and as a primo (first course)–but I did keep my spring orzo salad Italian-inspired with the use of orzo pasta, an abundance of fresh herbs and spring vegetables, and a bright lemon-herb vinaigrette.

spring orzo salad

Did you know there is a correct way to make a vinaigrette? In the interest of speed (and maybe some laziness, *ahem*) I’m guilty of throwing everything into a jar and giving it a good shake, which does work and is even approved by Bon Appetit, but I also wanted to learn the way professional chefs make vinaigrette: in a bowl, slowly, and mindfully incorporating the ingredients in a set order to produce a creamy, homogenous, and well-balanced vinaigrette. I know it isn’t difficult, but for some reason, I never committed the process to memory until now. While browsing my Facebook newsfeed last week, I watched this entertaining video on Epicurious. Turns out lots of people are stumped on how to make a proper vinaigrette! Be sure to watch it to the end when a professional chef steps in front of the camera and demonstrates how to make a basic vinaigrette. It’s all about the vinegar-to-oil ratio and the order that the ingredients are added. And it’s easy! I was able to create my very own lemon-herb vinaigrette recipe for this spring orzo salad, and it’s absolutely delicious if I do say so myself.

I decided to make my spring orzo salad vegetarian, but this salad can also handle the addition of cubed ham or salame for additional protein. You can also omit the meats and ricotta salata to make this vegan. It is a welcome addition to a picnic lunch, buffet table, or a back yard cook-out. The best thing about this spring orzo salad (like most cold pasta salads) is that it gets better as it stands, so making it in advance is key. The lemon-herb vinaigrette will penetrate the orzo and coat the vegetables giving the salad bright, zesty flavor. Adding a couple more tablespoons of the vinaigrette and giving it a final toss before serving will enhance the flavors even more. Make extra of the vinaigrette and keep it in the refrigerator for a two to three days to dress a simple green salad or to pour over boiled potatoes for an Italian mayo-less, spin on potato salad. It also works well as a dip for crudité.

My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have created some beautiful salad recipes so be sure to visit their blogs to get some new recipes for these gorgeous spring days. Francesca has made panzanella primaverile, the classic bread salad given a twist with beautiful spring vegetables and herbs; Carmen has made cialledda fredda, a panzanella-like bread and tomato salad from the southern regions of Puglia and Basilicata; Marialuisa made a seafood salad comprised of octopus, potatoes and black olives; Daniela is also sharing a recipe for another insalata di mare (seafood salad); Rosemarie is sharing a recipe for a valerian salad with eggs, anchovies, and spring onions; and Lisa has made insalata primavera. These are all perfect for eating al fresco before the heat of summer sets in and all we want to eat for lunch is a big bowl of gelato!

Enjoy our recipes and buon appetito!

spring orzo salad

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Spring Orzo Salad

This salad gets better as it rests, so making it several hours in advance will give the lemon-herb vinaigrette a chance to marinate into all the components, resulting in a flavorful salad. Remember that a little dressing goes a long way, so add it incrementally, toss to distribute the dressing throughout the salad, and taste until the salad is dressed to your liking. Be sure to use a good quality extra-virgin olive oil. To make this salad vegan, simply omit the ricotta salata cheese.

Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette
Zest of 1 large lemon (preferably organic)
¼ cup (50 mL) fresh lemon juice
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
⅔ cup (150 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon finely sliced chives
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

1  15.5 ounce (439 grams) can garbanzo beans/chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
8 ounces (227 grams) peas (fresh or frozen)
1 bunch asparagus, washed and patted dry
1 ½ cups (282 grams) orzo pasta
1  14 ounce (396 grams) can artichoke hearts (in water), drained, patted dry, and halved
1  2.25 ounce (64 grams) can sliced black olives, drained (or other olive of your choice)
Small handful grape tomatoes, washed and halved
1 teaspoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon finely sliced chives
Crumbled ricotta salata cheese (optional)

Make the Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette
Grate the lemon zest into a small mixing bowl and add in the lemon juice and Dijon mustard. Whisk until all the mustard is completely incorporated into the lemon juice and the mixture is smooth. While whisking constantly, pour in the olive oil in a thin, steady stream and continue whisking until the vinaigrette is homogenous. Add in the parsley, dill, chives, salt, and pepper and whisk to incorporate the ingredients throughout the vinaigrette. Set aside.

Assemble the salad
Place the drained and rinsed chickpeas in a small mixing bowl and add in 2 Tablespoons of the lemon-herb vinaigrette. Toss to coat the chickpeas evenly with the vinaigrette. Set aside to marinate for 1 hour at room temperature.

Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. Add in 1 Tablespoon of salt. Cut the asparagus into bite-size pieces, leaving the tips intact. Add the peas and asparagus pieces to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 8-10 minutes. Using a spider or slotted spoon, strain the vegetables into a large mixing bowl. Keep the water in the pot boiling and add in 1 additional Tablespoon of salt.

Add the orzo into the pot of boiling water and stir well to keep the orzo from clumping together. Cook the orzo, stirring frequently, until it is al dente, about 8-10 minutes. Strain the orzo through a colander and transfer it to the mixing bowl containing the peas and asparagus. Add 3-4 Tablespoons of the lemon-herb vinaigrette and toss the orzo, peas, and asparagus to coat them evenly with the dressing.

Add in the marinated chickpeas, artichoke hearts, olives, tomatoes, parsley, dill, chives, and ricotta salata (if using), and toss to incorporate all the ingredients evenly throughout the salad. Add in more of the lemon-herb vinaigrette 1 Tablespoon at a time until the salad is dressed to your liking. Transfer the salad to a large serving bowl and serve at room temperature.

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  • Reply Lisa May 2, 2018 at 5:02 am

    This sounds like a perfect salad for a bbq, since it can be made in advance. I just love salads with chickpeas and grains in them. I imagine farro could be used as well, or instead of, orzo? (I happen to have a bag of farro from last time I visited Italy!).

    • Reply flavias_flavors May 3, 2018 at 3:25 pm

      Hi Lisa, Yes, you can most definitely use farro for this salad; it would work perfectly. You can also find my recipe for Summer Farro Salad in my blog’s archives. Buon appetito!

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