Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reporter's Table: Orzo that deserves an ovation

By Helen Klein

While I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the past 30 years, my culinary roots are definitely in the Mediterranean.

It was in Italy and Greece that I learned to eat and to cook, forming my palate in a climate where flavoring your pasta was as easy as stepping out onto a red-tiled terrace and snipping a handful of basil leaves.

I definitely have a weakness for the vibrant colors and flavors of the Mediterranean basin that informs the type of table I set today.

One favorite side dish in my home is this orzo melange, sparked with ribbons of barely cooked spinach, and garnet-like chunks of red pepper, morsels of sweet onion and finely chopped garlic that have been sautéed together till crisp-tender. The colors burst on the plate like the flavors burst on the palate.

This dish, like many others that come out of my kitchen, is both versatile and malleable. If you don’t have red peppers, substitute yellow or orange. Stir in diced tomatoes either during cooking or at the end, if you prefer them raw. A bit of crumbled feta cheese would be a fine garnish, as well, as would chopped black olives.

And, leftovers are welcome, because the orzo tastes great as a salad the next day.


8 oz. orzo, boiled and drained
2 Tbl. olive oil, or as necessary, plus 2-2 Tbl. extra virgin olive oil, to finish the dish
1 cup chopped sweet onion, such as Vidalia or Maui
1 red pepper, cored and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups raw baby spinach, washed well to remove any grit, cut into ribbons
A handful of basil leaves, cut into ribbons
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup pine nuts

Heat oil in large skillet or wok, preferably non-stick.

When oil is hot, add chopped onion and pepper, and cook, over moderately high heat, till onion is translucent and vegetables are crisp-tender. Adding a dash of salt helps the vegetables render their liquid, minimizing the amount of oil that is necessary. When onion and pepper are somewhat cooked, add the garlic, stirring well, and continue cooking on moderately high heat.
If pan appears to be drying out before the onion, pepper and garlic are fully cooked, a splash of water, perhaps a quarter of a cup, will help loosen the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan, and provide the necessary moisture till sautéing is completed.

Once the vegetables in the pan are crisp-tender, add the spinach, stirring till wilted, but still bright green in color. Add the basil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add the orzo and pine nuts, and stir to combine, adding the extra virgin olive oil to coat the mixture.

Serves four to six as a side dish.

Helen Klein cooks out of her Flatbush kitchen, where she trades her pen and pad for a wooden spoon and whisk. She has been cooking since the age of 16, when she made a batch of spritz cookies in her mother’s Madison area apartment. Neither the culinary universe nor her figure has been the same since.


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