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Orzo - it’s pasta, but more so

The ‘orzotto’ trend for using the little pasta ‘grains’ as an alternative to risotto rice continues, and inspirational recipes abound.

Amongst the some 350 different varieties of pasta available today, not to mention the myriad of grains being ‘rediscovered’ by chefs each year, orzo, one of the tiniest pastas in the Italian repertoire, is easy to overlook. This short-cut pasta is almost the exact shape and size of wild rice grains, so it’s not surprising that many people outside the culinary world mistake it for something else entirely. 

However, once discovered, most will agree that orzo falls into the ‘small but mighty’ category on pure versatility alone. It’s a great addition to hearty soups, perfect for pasta salads and provides a fantastic accompaniment to rich, braised and roasted meats, mingling with and soaking up all those flavourful juices. 

Not only, but orzo 

As if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to skip the spaghetti in favour of the little pasta morsels with a lot to offer, one of the most popular ways to use orzo currently has to be for making ‘orzotto’. This substitutes the rice traditionally used to make risotto, with orso pasta. 

Rice varieties such as Aroborio, Carnaroli and Vialone, historically employed to make risotto, are all short-grain rices, used because of their high starch content, which means they absorb less liquid and make a stickier risotto dish. Although many love the gluey creaminess of risotto, there are plenty out there who prefer the subtler, silky texture of orzotto. It’s a trend that appears to be on the rise, and with as many recipe variations as there are for risotto, these little pasta particles are ready to be embraced by vegetarians and omnivores alike, but don’t just take our word, here’s a selection of our favourite recipes to demonstrate the versatility of orzo and get the juices flowing. 


Orzo with Fontina, Lemon and Herbs 

Light, tangy, swift and easy to prepare, this orzotto dish makes an exciting and equally rich (thanks to the addition of both parmesan and fontina) substitute for classic, saffron infused ‘Risotto alla Milanese’ the traditional accompaniment to Osso Buco, the world-famous dish of braised veal from Northern Italy. 

 INGREDIENTS (Serves 4) 

6 oz. orzo pasta 

2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil 

3 tbs. minced shallot 

1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme 

1 tsp. finely chopped fresh sage 

6oz coarsely grated Fontina (semi-soft cheese from Alpine Italy) 

4oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano 

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest 

Salt and freshly ground black pepper 

PREPARATION 

Cook the orzo according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil. Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in the thyme, sage, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, add the orzo, Fontina, Parmigiano, and lemon zest. Toss gently to combine. 


Orzo with Butternut Squash, Feta and Porcini 

This is one of those culinary joys, a vegetarian dish that’s hearty without being stodgy. Salty feta compliments the sweetness of the butternut squash while porcini deliver extra, earthy undertones. 

INGREDIENTS (serves 4) 

1oz dried porcini 

1 butternut squash (or bag of cubed butternut squash) 

16oz of orzo 

2 vegetable stock cubes 

2oz cup butter 

2 large shallots, diced 

1 tsp sage 

8oz crumbled feta cheese 

Salt and pepper to taste 

PREPARATION 

Place the porcini in a small bowl, just cover with boiling water and leave to rehydrate. Cut butternut squash in half and remove seeds. Place face down on baking sheet and about 1/4" of water. Bake at 200˚C for 30 minutes or until squash is softened. Cool then peel away outer skin and slice into bite-sized chunks. While squash is baking cook orzo according to package instructions but with addition of vegetable stock cubes. When done, drain and set aside. In a pan, melt the butter and add diced shallots. Cook over medium heat until shallots as transparent then stir in sage. Return drained orzo to the pot it cooked in, drain porcini and add them in along with butter and shallots, then lightly toss in cubed butternut squash and feta cheese. Combine and add salt and pepper to taste. 

 

Youvets

This stew of braised lamb, tomato and orzo is classic comfort food Greek-style. 

INGREDIENTS (serves 4) 

2lb lamb stewing steak (preferably shoulder) 

2 tbsp olive oil 

1 large white onion 

3 cloves garlic 

1/2 cup red wine 

14 oz (one tin) chopped tomatoes 

2 tsp tomato puree 

1 tsp cinnamon 

1/2 tsp nutmeg 

4oz fresh flat leaf parsley (roughly chopped) 

1 tsp sugar 

2 cups chicken stock 

6oz orzo 

4oz kefalotyri cheese (or parmesan/pecorino) grated 

PREPARATION 

If the meat is not already diced, cut it in to bite-sized pieces and season with some salt and pepper. Peel and dice the onion and finely chop the garlic. In a metal-base casserole dish, warm half the oil then sear the meat on all sides, working in batches and removing to a plate once done. Add the rest of the oil and soften the onions, adding the garlic after a minute and cook until all are translucent but not brown. Deglaze the casserole dish with the wine - allow the alcohol to boil off and scrape the bottom to incorporate into the sauce. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and stock and return the meat. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer, then cook covered on low heat for around one hour or until tender. Preheat oven to 180C, stir orzo through the stew then transfer to oven and bake uncovered for approx 25 minutes. Remove from oven and stir in chopped parsley. Serve topped with grated cheese.