I discovered orzo salad in college while studying in Italy, and variations of it have been a supper staple ever since. In fact, it's probably one of the most requested recipes from my very picky husband. The formula is always the same: Toss some seasonal roasted vegetables with the pasta, along with a rustic vinaigrette. Sometimes I add cheese, sometimes I don't; sometimes I add nuts, sometimes I don't. This version includes caramelized cauliflower for flavor, toasted pine nuts for subtle crunch, and raisins and sultanas for a perfect hint of sweet.
Way back in college, I spent one glorious month studying abroad in Florence with my greatest accomplice, Jen. I went with the best of intentions: to master the beautiful Italian language. Turns out, the only thing I mastered was the food. (I promise I'm not complaining!) I spent far more time roaming the farmers' markets and sampling gelato than I did in museums or class.
In between epic meals of pera tortelloni and bistecca alla Fiorentina, there were affogatos, pizzette and plenty of bacio (the ice cream, not the kiss). But then I started to yearn for something else. After a few too many heavily sauced meals -- and a few too many extra pounds -- I started to crave something light. One evening, a few of us ladies decided to forgo our usual dinner plans and cook in. We procured wine and cheese and various other local ingredients. And then we feasted. To be honest, the only contribution I remember was a rather nondescript side: orzo pasta tossed with roasted zucchini and eggplant, a splash of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. It was perfection on a plate.
Looking back on my trip, it's funny how that simple pasta salad is one of the first taste memories that comes to mind. Of all the restaurants and all the meals, it's the most basic dish that stuck. Now I recreate that orzo from home all the time, whether it's for lunches, dinners, parties or potlucks. This recipe is a reflection of that wonderful home-cooked dinner in Italy. My version has evolved a bit over the years -- just like my taste -- and I know it's for the better. I hope you enjoy my little reminder of Florence, too.
ORZO SALAD WITH ROASTED CAULIFLOWER, PINE NUTS AND PARSLEY
SERVES: 6 to 8
For the vegetables:
- 1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 1 small red onion, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
- Olive oil, to taste
- Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
For the pasta salad:
- 2 cups (12 ounces) dried orzo pasta
- 1/4 cup sherry vinegar (see recipe notes)
- 1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon honey (see recipe notes)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 cup mix of raisins and sultanas
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
- 3 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
- Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
For the vegetables, preheat oven to 400 F. Toss the cauliflower and red onion with enough olive oil to lightly coat; season generously with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, stirring once or twice, until vegetables are light golden-brown and caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes.
For the pasta salad, cook the orzo in generously salted boiling water, approximately 8 to 9 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
Scrape the roasted vegetables with their pan juices into the bowl with the pasta. In a separate bowl, whisk vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, honey and garlic to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the noodles. Fold in raisins, pine nuts and parsley to combine. Let it rest for at least one hour before serving, or cover and chill until ready to serve (if chilled, bring to room temperature before serving). Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Recipe notes: Red wine or balsamic vinegar can be substituted in place of the sherry vinegar. If vegan, substitute sugar, agave, or maple syrup for the honey.