I wish I had a great story behind this dish since I love it so much. But in truth, it evolved over several years, and I can't really pinpoint its beginning. I do remember a meal at which there was a dish of summer squash with almonds and there was an orzo salad, and when I came home, having the recipe for neither, I decided to combine them.
In any case, what I ended up with has become one of my favorite summer dishes. It's not that you couldn't make it well at other times of the year; it's just that it's especially good during that sweet spot of early summer when there are fresh peas and corn on the cob and the first zucchini that have not yet reached baseball bat proportions.
There is a certain amount of prep work involved in this, between shelling the peas and husking the corn and dicing the rest of the vegetables, but it's totally worth it. (Fortunately, I'm listening to the new PD James mystery--The Private Patient--on my iPod, which helped keep dicing tedium at bay.) And the recipe is flexible enough to accommodate a range of vegetables, though stay away from anything like a tomato that would fall apart--this is a dish whose pleasure derives from tiny, intact pieces of tasty things all melded together. I happen to like it with a combination of yellow and green vegetables (I make an exception for the red onion). There are two keys--one is that all the vegetables should be approximately the same size. (That is, the size of a pea or a kernel of corn.) And you have to add the orzo to the vegetables rather than the other way around. This isn't orzo with vegetables--the orzo is integrated into the vegetables so that it's a part of the whole rather than the base.
My basic routine is this. Dice the red onion and start to cook in some olive oil. Throw in some minced garlic, if you like. Once it starts to soften, add the diced zucchini or summer squash. (For my latest batch, I used one of each.) Husk the corn and cut off the kernels, then add those to the other vegetables. Add the peas last. In the meantime, cook the orzo. (Because orzo is so small, it's deceptive how much you need. The last time I made it, I used half a box which was way too much--that turned out to be enough for 1 small batch and 1 large batch, with some leftover. The flip side is that it's just as easy to add leftover orzo as fresh. Just make sure you add it while the vegetables are still in the pan so it heats up. When I'm using just-cooked orzo, I mix it in the serving bowl.) If you like, you can also add some toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds. I also add any fresh herbs I have around--basil definitely works, as do chives. When the vegetables are tender but not mushy (and the peas still bright green) and the orzo is drained, slowly begin to add the orzo to the vegetables. The orzo should flesh out the vegetables but not overwhelm it. Here's my pan of vegetables:
And here's the pan of vegetables with the orzo added:
Sprinkle with some grated Parmesan, and dinner is ready. Don't hesitate to make a lot because it is excellent re-heated for lunch.
Because of the recipe's flexibility, it's hard to pin down exactly what you need. I didn't measure my peas, for example and just used all the peas I'd picked from the garden. The orzo would have been just as good with more peas and still fine with fewer peas. Exact amounts are less important here than with other dishes. You're just looking for a certain balance and no one thing or flavor dominating. I'm including these quantities to use as a guide and adapt at will.
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
2 small zucchini or summer squash, diced
3 ears of fresh corn, husked and the corn cut off the cob
1 - 1 1/2 cups fresh shell peas, removed from the pod
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 - 1/3 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds (or a combo of both), toasted
1 cup cooked orzo (very approximate--see above)
fresh herbs (basil, parsley, chives, etc), to taste, chopped finely
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
- Saute red onion in olive oil until soft.
- Add diced squash; cook until it begins to shrink and soften
- Add corn kernels, cook for several minutes
- Add peas
- Add pine nuts/almonds
- Add herbs
- Remove from heat and begin to add orzo, a few tablespoons at a time until integrated. It is better to have not quite enough orzo than too much.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste
- Serve with freshly grated Parmesan
Serves 4, approximately, depending on how hungry you are and what else is being served.