Michael’s Favourite Orzo Salad

I’m not likely to be making or enjoying this stuff any time in the near future, I’m afraid, but you have my personal guarantee that it is utterly delicious and well worth trying out.

As the days were starting to warm up in May earlier this year, I suddenly got the idea to experiment with a new salad to go with some nice trout we’d found at the local Loblaws. I’ve had Orzo plenty of times in restaurants before, but don’t think I’ve ever cooked it until this year.

Since our first experiments, we’ve tried it with a bunch of things – lamb kebabs, other fish, burgers, just about any easy-going summer grub options. It seems to go with just about anything and makes for a great picnic food too.

My recipe may seem like a lot of faffing around – there are all kinds of different ingredients to prep, and it takes a while to come together. But this is actually one of the best things about it – it’s a slow, sociable food that you can build by yourself, or have a bunch of friends help out with.

Oh, and like most of my favourite dishes, the recipe here should be considered a base upon which to build out endless variations. I’ve listed here the ingredients for the basic version – but you should feel free to mix it up with whatever you feel like.

Ingredients:

- One bag of Orzo pasta
- Two to four cobs of fresh corn
- Two medium onions (or a handful of shallots, or a single big spanish onion, your call…)
- A pack of really good, fresh, cherry tomatoes – preferably a mix of red and yellow ones
- Sliced almonds
- A lemon
- Fresh tarragon
- Fresh mint
- Harissa
- Olive oil
- Good unsalted butter

Got all that together? OK, let’s start…

First, peel and slice your onions then start the long, loving process of letting them caramelize over a low heat in some of that lovely unsalted butter. The onions will be almost the last thing to go in, but they’re the first thing to start cooking because you want them properly caramelized, and that can easily take half an hour or more.

Once the onions are happily sweating away at the back of the stove, clean and boil your corn. We’re going to cook the corn twice, for extra flavour, so start with 10 minutes in fast-boiling, salted water, then remove the cobs from the water with tongs and leave them to drain in a colander. Keep the water at a slow boil – we’ll use it again in a minute.

Finish the corn by grilling it on your BBQ, to give it that nice, smoky, all-over toasted taste. Set aside for later.

Wash and squeeze dry the tarragon and mint, set them to one side.

Now throw about half a cup of sliced almonds into a hot non-stick pan and shuggle them around for about 5 minutes or so until they start to develop some colour. Be careful here – you don’t want burnt and bitter, you just want that extra nutty delight that comes from a quick toasting. Once the almonds are browned, slide them out of the pan into a small bowl and set aside.

Next, the tomatoes. Use a serrated knife to slice your tomatoes lengthways and lay them in rows, cut side up, on a cookie sheet. In the UK, I’d tell you to grill them – but here in Canada, you’ll want them under your broiler. Either way, you want them to brown and soften fast under a hot, hot element.

While the tomatoes are in, cook the Orzo in the water you used for the corn. Follow the package instructions but err on the side of al dente. Orzo tends to stick together, so stir that bugger with a pasta fork. If the bag says 8 mins, I’d cook it for about 6, then immediately drain and rinse the pasta very briefly under cold water, leaving it in a coolander to fully drain.

Things are a bit crazy at this point, as you also want to pull the tomatoes out – make sure they’re not too squishy.

Pull a handful of tarragon leaves off the stalks and roughly chop a small handful of mint leaves. Peel the zest off half to 2/3rds of the lemon and slice it very finely.

Now – transfer the Orzo into a big, colourful serving bowl. Immediately add a good glug of fine virgin olive oil, then add all the rest of the ingredients – the almonds, herbs, lemon zest, tomatoes, yummy caramelized onions and about two teaspoons of Harissa.

Run a sharp knife along the corn cobs to remove all the kernels, break them apart and add them to the salad.

Finally, mix it all together gently (so as not to smush the tomatoes too much) and add a final glug of olive oil or other seasoning to taste.

Serve immediately – it works really well as a salad tiede, but is still delicious the next day, straight from the fridge.

And that’s it. You could easily add tuna, chopped celery for crunch, some crispy apple, raisins, figs – all kinds of things you can mix this up with.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

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