The Perfect Summer Side

Ah, summer. The season of picnics and cookouts, graduation parties and camping trips. You know what all of those things have in common? Food! Whatever’s happening, people need to eat, right? And most of the time, there will be pasta salad on the table. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s drowning in mayo and isn’t so good. Sometimes, much to Andy’s dismay, it’s the only side dish at the party.

Unless, of course, this pasta salad is available. It’s so good that Andy (who says pasta salad makes him gag), eats more than just a polite serving. He goes back for seconds and thirds. And then he raids the fridge for the leftovers.

The first time I tried it, I was amazed  that something so simple could be so delicious. It’s just orzo, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh basil, feta and dried cherries, with some greens thrown in for good measure. My friend Bethany made it for a get-together, and wow. It was summer loving at first bite for me. Clearly, this was something special.

Like any good summer salad, this one is easy to throw together. It tastes good straight out of the fridge or at room temperature. I can’t decide if it’s the basil, the cherries or the feta that puts this one over the top. Maybe it’s all three together, in a trifecta of awesomeness.

I didn’t have arugula on hand, but I’d gotten a bunch of Swiss chard in our CSA the week beforehand, so I figured that would work out OK. I ended up sauteing the stems and then the chopped leaves, since I think they’re a little tough and chewy raw. It didn’t take that much longer, and it gave me something to do while I waited for the pasta to cool. Good thing too. Otherwise I might have eaten all of the feta before it made its way into the salad. 😉

I almost skipped the pine nuts because they were ridiculously expensive in my grocery store but decided to splurge when I found a slightly cheaper package of them. I used some of my awesome Italian olive oil from Andy’s brother, Dan, and I think it really made a difference in the end result. So if you have the good stuff, this is the time to break it out. And then you may want to keep it out, since you’ll probably need to make a second batch to take to a picnic or something.

OrzoPastaSalad

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

1 lb. uncooked orzo pasta
3 tablespoons plus up to 1/4 cup of olive oil, divided
2 cups chopped greens (arugula, spinach or Swiss chard)
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup dried cherries
12 fresh basil leaves, torn
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1 1/2 teaspoon salt (I didn’t measure this.) 
1 teaspoon pepper  (Again, I didn’t measure.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, then drain the pasta and quickly rinse it with cool water.

Spread the cooked pasta in an even layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with three tablespoons of olive oil. Set aside to cool.

While the pasta cools, prepare the rest of the salad.

If you’re using Swiss chard, separate the stems from the leaves and chop the stems into 1/4″ pieces. Add some olive oil to a large skillet and saute the stems until they are crisp tender. Chop the leaves into bite-sized / manageable pieces and then add them to the skillet when the stems are almost done. Take the pan off the heat.

If you’re using spinach or arugula, simply wash the leaves and tear them into bite-sized pieces.

Place the greens in a large bowl and then add the pine nuts, cherries, basil and feta cheese. Scrape the orzo into the bowl and add the lemon juice. Gently mixed until everything is well-distributed. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil (up to 1/4 cup) until the pasta is well-coated and doesn’t appear dry. Mix everything one more time, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve cold or at room temperature. Hide store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

From my friend Bethany

Click here for a printable version.

Not Weird, Just Different

Clearly, I’m no stranger to odd combinations. Strawberries and pizza? Yes please. Bacon and cheesecake? Why not? One of my favorite pizzas is topped with pepperoni and banana peppers, something that Andy finds incredibly weird. It’s not weird, just different. (Haha… I think I had a key chain in high school that said this.)

Last summer, I saw this recipe for lemon basil cheesecake, and it immediately caught my attention. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it until after my basil was pretty much done for the season, so I made a mental note to check it out again this year. Well, I still haven’t made time for cheesecake, but this time around, I noticed the link to the lemon basil gelato. Gelato, I reasoned, would come together faster than cheesecake, and wouldn’t require the use of the oven. Plus, who wouldn’t want a frosty, frozen treat in the middle of August? Besides, how weird could it really be? (Andy was NOT convinced. “Why do you have to make a weird flavor? Can’t you just make vanilla bean?”) 

I went for it. It came together quickly, and I found the flavor to be very refreshing. Right after churning the gelato, I found it to have a very subtle basil flavor – I think “herby” is the best way to describe it. However, the longer it sat in the freezer, the more pronounced the basil became. Since I’m not too familiar with gelato, I can’t say if the texture was right on, but no one here complained. In fact, Andy’s only complaint was that I ate more than my share of the gelato. In my defense, I thought that his comments about its “weirdness” meant he didn’t like it. Whoops.

I can’t wait to hear his comments when I try this peach basil sorbet. 😀

LemonBasilGelato

Lemon Basil Gelato

2 1/4 cups milk, divided
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
zest of one lemon
1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves (I didn’t have lemon basil, so I upped the zest and decreased the basil.) 
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 1/4 cup milk. Set aside. Heat (but do not boil) the remaining two cups of milk in a medium saucepan set over medium heat.

Meanwhile, combine the sugar, lemon zest and basil leaves in a small bowl. Using a wooden spoon, crush the zest and leaves into the sugar, releasing the oils.

When the milk begins to steam, whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Mix in the lemon/bail/sugar mixture and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the vanilla and salt. Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and pour the mixture through the strainer, pressing on the leaves to extract the flavors. Allow the mixture to chill completely. (I was impatient, so I put mine in the freezer and stirred it every 20 minutes or so… no time to mess with an overnight chill in the fridge!) 

Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions, then transfer to a freezer-safe container and freeze until firm.

From Have Dessert First

Click here for a printable version.