Alimentary, My Dear
Putting My Orzo In
By Tamia Nelson
June 19, 2012
When, as a teenager, I came down with a bad case of flu, my grandmother dosed me with homemade chicken and vegetable soup. But it was no ordinary soup. It had a pasta base, and the pasta was unlike any I'd ever seen before — tiny, pill‑shaped lozenges. When I asked Nan what this strange stuff was (I wasn't so sick that I'd lost all curiosity), she answered with a single word: orzo.
My grandmother's orzo soup was delicious, and it — or Nan's nursing, or just the passage of time — did the trick. I was soon over the worst of the flu. But the memory of the flavorful "cure" stayed with me, and when I saw a package of orzo on a HyperMart shelf many years later, I put it in my cart. It's been a household staple ever since. And that's not all. Orzo is also …
A Great Addition to My Camping Menu
Like all pastas, it's an ideal foundation on which to build a dish: mild in flavor, with just the right amount of chewiness. If you've never seen it before, you might mistake it for rice or barley (in fact, the name means "barley" in Italian), but it isn't a grain. It's an honest‑to‑goodness pasta made from semolina. Take a look:
Orzo's compact size — the tomatoes will help you take its measure — and simple shape give it a versatility that larger pastas lack. In fact, as my grandmother's influenza cure attests, it can readily be substituted for rice in soups, stews, and one‑pot entrées. It's a great traveler, too, requiring no special care in your pack. And it's calorie‑dense, cramming more food energy into a smaller space than fancier pastas. Here's proof:
Both boxes hold one pound of pasta. Both yield the same number of calories. But the orzo is the runaway winner in the efficient packing stakes. And it's no more expensive that its bigger cousin.
Have I sold you on orzo's virtues as a camping staple? Then it's time to …
Put It to the Test
Let's begin by doing the math. Cooking pasta requires that you add water. In the case of orzo, you'll need a minimum of three or four times as much water (by volume) as pasta. In other words, to cook half a cup of orzo, you'll need around two cups of water. This will vary, of course. Some orzos are "wetter" than others, and even when double bagged, packed pasta can still absorb moisture from the air, particularly in humid weather. But you won't go far wrong with the four‑to‑one, water‑to‑pasta, rule of thumb. If in doubt, though, it's best to err on the side of generosity, especially when adding orzo to soups or stews. You can always let a watery stew simmer a little longer. But what can you do with a lump of charred glue? Dump it into the garbage sack and start over, that's what.
How much orzo can one hungry paddler eat? It depends. A serving that will fill a 100‑pound accountant to the bursting point will be little more than an appetizer for a 250‑pound sheetrocker. In figuring quantities, I start out by allowing two or three ounces (dry weight) per person, but I build a generous cushion into every recipe. I've seen 100‑pound accountants polish off eight ounces after a hard day on the water — and then ask for more. So when an orzo dish is the main course, you'd better figure on one pound yielding no more than three servings. You can always cook less if appetites are flagging, but you can't download orzo on your iPad when you run out halfway through a trip. Not yet, at any rate.
OK. That takes care of the math. Now we can get to the meat of the matter: How do you cook the stuff? The easy answer? Like any other pasta. But I approach orzo a little differently, using a technique that yields a creamy sauce as a bonus. Call it …
The Creamy Orzo Master Recipe. It's not time‑consuming. Figure on 10 minutes from pot to finish. But have all your ingredients ready before you begin, because you'll be too busy to root around in your pack during the last five minutes.
Let's get started. Put the orzo in a pot. In this example, I'm working with a small amount, only 4 ounces (about ½ cup dry measure). Now cover the orzo with water to a depth of ½ inch (Photo 1 below).
Add a pinch of salt to the water, stir, and bring it to a boil over a high flame or hot fire, stirring occasionally (Photo 2). Once the pot is on the boil, reduce the flame and simmer. Soon the cooking water will take on the appearance of a thick sauce (Photo 3). It's time to lift out a spoonful …
… and bite into one of the little lozenges (Careful! Hot!) to see if the orzo has reached the right consistency. If it's crunchy — and if the "sauce" is still thin and runny, it probably will be — add a little more water (Photo 4) and keep simmering. Don't flood the orzo. Half a cup of extra water is plenty. Keep stirring (Photo 5), too, and test at regular intervals, adding small amounts of water as needed to keep the pasta covered. When the orzo is toothsome without being crunchy, and it's smothered in a thick, creamy sauce, you're done (Photo 6). Remove the pot from the heat.
Of course, "done" is a relative term. Unless you want to take your orzo straight, you'll need to do a bit more. For the purposes of demonstration, I divided my small sample into four portions, each prepared differently:
And then I ate them all. Now here's …
How Each Was Prepared (And More, Besides)
First things first: Unless I say otherwise, all the dishes I'll describe take their departure from the Master Recipe (i.e., creamy orzo). I'll begin with my sample platter.
Buttered Orzo With Cracked Black Pepper Stir a generous pat of butter (or a substitute) into cooked orzo, then season with salt and a helping of cracked black pepper. Meal preparation doesn't get much simpler than this, does it?
Basil Pesto Orzo Add a large dollop of basil pesto. Stir. Serve with pine nuts or walnuts, if you have some in your pack. Life is good!
Olive Oil–Walnut–Parmesan Orzo Drizzle olive oil over the orzo and stir in walnut pieces and grated Parmesan. Now season with salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh, minced garlic, if desired.
Cheddar Orzo with Garlic Crouton Crumbs Add grated cheddar cheese — as much as you like. Stir. Crush some garlic croutons and sprinkle the crumbs over the top of each serving. Add real or ersatz bacon bits if these float your boat. (For more variations on this theme, read "Thinking Outside the Box.")
So much for my sampler. It's time to ring the changes:
Orzo Risotto Drizzle a little olive oil into an empty pot. Chop a small onion fine and place it in the oil. Sauté over a high flame (or hot fire), stirring all the while. When the onion has softened, add the orzo and toast for a few seconds, without allowing the onion to burn. (Add a dash of white wine, too, if you want, letting it boil off before proceeding.) Now continue as described in the Master Recipe, but use broth — from an aseptic pack, a can, or reconstituted powdered bouillon — rather than water. When the orzo is ready, take it off the flame and stir in a small handful of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.
Minty Orzo with Peas Before cooking the orzo, add between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of both dried spearmint and dehydrated or freeze‑dried peas. Now cover with water to a depth of ½ inch and proceed as in the Master Recipe. If you'd like a creamier sauce, stir in some nonfat dry milk powder when the orzo is nearly done.
Lemon or Lime Orzo with Feta Cheese Make Olive Oil–Walnut–Parmesan Orzo as above, but omit the Parmesan. When it's ready, squeeze a lemon or lime over the cooked pasta and nuts, stir in feta cheese, and serve.
Orzo and Tuna or Chicken Begin with the Master Recipe, but when the water comes to a boil, stir in one or two packets of Cream of Chicken Cup‑a‑Soup (or an equivalent house brand). Then, when the pasta is nearly done, add precooked tuna or chicken from an aseptic packet or can. Add the juices, too. Serve as is, or add croutons or crushed Triscuits.
Orzo Pilaf Before bringing the orzo to a boil, add a grated fresh carrot (or some dehydrated or freeze‑dried diced carrot) to the pot, along with dried cherries or raisins. When the orzo is done, stir in shelled pistachio nuts, peanuts, or almonds.
Mediterranean Orzo Stir olives into cooked orzo, along with a drizzle of olive oil, and top with crumbled feta or goat cheese.
Orzo Caprese A fancy name for a simple pasta. Cook orzo according to the Master Recipe. When it's done, season with salt and pepper, then stir in minced garlic and chopped dried tomatoes (or fresh grape tomatoes if you have them), along with a drizzle of olive oil. Top with a garnish of dried basil and small cubes of mozzarella.
That's enough to be going on with, I think. And I bet you are already thinking of ways to make orzo fit into your camping meal plan. But every trip comes to an end, and what better way to settle in back home than with a good meal of homemade soup? So as a no‑cost bonus, I'll pass along my grandmother's recipe, somewhat modified to accommodate the faster pace of modern life. Whereas she started from scratch with a whole chicken, this quick and easy version cooks up in less than half an hour.
Nan's Chicken Orzo Soup
Yield: Six to seven cups (can be doubled)
- Olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced small OR three green onions, sliced thin
- 1 stick celery, diced small
- 1 carrot, grated or diced small
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into ½‑inch cubes
- Black pepper
- About 8 cups cold water
- ½–1 cup orzo
- ¼ cup frozen corn kernels
- ¼ cup frozen peas
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Drizzle olive oil in the bottom of a three‑quart pot. Add the onions and sauté over high heat until they become soft. Be careful not to let them burn. (Green onions are especially prone to burning. If you choose to use them, however, save the green tops until the soup is almost ready.) Working fast, add the celery, carrot, and garlic, then stir and sauté for a minute or so. Next, place the chicken in the pot, adding a couple of pinches of coarse salt (or a couple of shakes of table salt) and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover with water, and don't stint: 8 cups is about the right amount. (Clouds of steam will billow up at this point, so keep your face well back.) Give the watery mélange another stir, then place the lid on the pot, leaving it slightly ajar. Bring the soup to a boil over high heat. Now add the orzo, reducing the heat just enough to maintain a lively simmer till the pasta has cooked. By that time the chicken and vegetables will also be done. Lastly, add the corn and peas (and the tops of the green onions, if any), stir, and continue simmering till they're heated through, then turn off the heat and add the parsley, stirring again. Serve piping hot.
Plan to stop off and pick up the ingredients on your way home from your next trip, particularly if the weekend ends, as so many do, with the passage of a cold front, leaving you soaking wet and chilled to the bone. Don't forget to buy a loaf of fresh bread, too. (I favor a rye or marble loaf.) If the soup is simmering before you hit the shower, dinner will be almost ready to eat by the time you've changed into something comfortable. Trust me: There's no need to wait till your next bout of flu to enjoy my grandmother's chicken soup!
Pasta is a staple ingredient in many paddling menu plans. And if paddlers designed a pasta just for themselves it would look a lot like orzo. Though it's not as quick‑cooking as couscous or angel hair, its unequaled versatility and pack‑friendly form‑factor make it a great choice for any backcountry traveler's food bag. Want to know why I'm putting my orzo in so vociferously? Just try it yourself. See if it doesn't become a favorite. I'm betting that it will.