Monday, February 8, 2010

Orzo with Roasted Vegetables

Side dishes are often relegated to the back burner, so to speak, as we focus our attentions on the "star" of most meals...the entrée. We give great thought to what meat, fish, or poultry will be grilled, baked, sautéed, or roasted. And then, of course, there are the marinades, the seasonings, and the stuffings to consider...all important decisions, no doubt.

After much entrée contemplation, the sides are finally considered. While I suppose this is a natural progression in thought, I wonder just how many great sides go unnoticed simply because they are seen as the supporting cast, and not the star. Similar to a casting effort more associated with the Big Screen, we peruse and assess potential sides to determine how they might pair with the "star," careful to make a delicious choice without any risk of upstaging our entrée, or threat of a misstep on flavor compatibility. We only consider those that seem like a good match; ones that will enhance our entrée; ones that will successfully "round out" our meal. As a result, we casually pass on potentially great talent, unsure whether one or more characteristics in these side dishes might pose a less-than-perfect fit.

Without any knowledge of "who" the "star" might be at a recent potluck, I selected this little rice-shaped pasta dish as my offering. At first, I wondered if it would work (old habits die hard) and was pleasantly surprised at just how well ALL the side offerings shined...along with the succulent grilled pork and chicken that headlined. All sides (four total) were a big hit and had distinct, unique flavor. AND...none were pre-cast! I took this as proof that we can be a bit more adventurous with sides and even (sometimes) cast them as headliners.

This particular orzo dish has both roasted and freshly chopped ingredients, lending it a nice balance and depth of flavor. Eggplant, red onion, garlic, and red and yellow bell peppers make up the roasted veggie component, coming out of the oven perfectly softened, lightly golden, and subtly caramelized. Apart from the 40-minute roasting time these veggies require (a step not to be skipped!!), the dish comes together rather quickly with the addition of freshly chopped basil and green onion, diced feta cheese, lightly toasted pine nuts, and a drizzle of a simple lemon-olive oil dressing. It's a recipe that I adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, easing up on the oil content a bit, and increasing the portion of orzo, to better balance the components to our liking.

This is a dish that pairs exceptionally well with most anything grilled or roasted...AND one that can be thoroughly enjoyed on its very own!

Orzo with Roasted Vegetables
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa
serves 6 to 8 (as a side dish); 4 to 6 (as a "headliner")

1 small eggplant, peeled and 1/2-inch diced
1 red bell pepper, 3/4-inch diced
1 yellow bell pepper, 3/4-inch diced
1 red onion, peeled and 3/4-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound orzo

for dressing:
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

to add separately:
3 green onions, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
6 ounces feta cheese, 1/2-inch cubed (do not use crumbled feta)
10 to 12 basil leaves, julienned

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Toss eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan. (I placed foil on my sheet pan for an easier clean up...but this isn't necessary and can inhibit the amount of goodies you can later dislodge and scrape into your pasta.) Roast for 40 minutes, turning once half-way through roasting, until lightly browned.

2. Cook orzo in boiling, salted water for 7 to 9 minutes, until just tender (slightly al dente). Drain orzo and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add roasted vegetables, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from sheet pan into the pasta.

3. In a small bowl, combine dressing ingredients, lemon juice through pepper, and whisk lightly. Pour dressing over pasta and mix throughly to coat. Set aside and let mixture cool to room temperature.

4. Once pasta has cooled, add green onions, pine nuts, feta, and basil. Turn carefully to mix. Add additional salt and/or pepper, to taste, if needed. Serve at room temperature.

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