Every so often, I have a light bulb moment in the kitchen. A moment where I go, “Aha! That’s how that works!” or “My cooking has just changed for the better!” Starting to use fresh herbs was a definite light bulb – I feel like the quality of my food changed noticeably. When Randy and I moved back from London in the summer of 2004, I had to give away all of my dried spices and herbs. The U.S. is really stringent about what they allow into the country and any kind of food – even canned goods – was a no go.
When we arrived back in Seattle, I had to start from scratch with my collection and it took me a a while to put it all together again. Since it was summer time, I started to really think about buying fresh as much as possible, and there were tons of delicious herbs at all the farmer’s markets. Previously, I had always taken the lazy approach and if a recipe suggested you could use either fresh or dried, I had copped out and used dried. But once I tasted my food with fresh herbs, there was no going back. Now I am lucky enough to have thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, oregano, and chives all growing in my garden. I am out there at least once a day picking something for a recipe.
After tasting today’s pasta salad, I am going to have to plant some basil. You see, as much as I love pasta – and I really love pasta – I have never been a huge fan of pasta salad. It seems no matter what wonderful ingredients are in there, it always tastes the same. So no matter how much love and affection I give a pasta salad, no matter how much I adore all the vegetables and cheese in it it, it tastes no different than the tri-color rotelle slop in the cheap grocery store. It is so unfair that something that just screams summer and is a great thing to feed a crowd, just hasn’t done it for me.
Until today when I had my light bulb moment. Vinegar. All of those salads, those I have made, those I have bought, those I have had in delis, they all taste of vinegar. That is what makes them all taste the same. That is the pesky flavor that overwhelms all others! Don’t get me wrong; I like vinegar, just not, apparently, in pasta salad. As I was tweaking the recipe for tonight’s Orzo and Broccoli Salad I noticed that it had no vinegar. I was about to add some but, fortunately, tasted it first. Bing! The light bulb went on. This is what I have always wanted to taste. The starch of the pasta, the richness of the olive oil, the salt of the cheese – all clear as a bell without that acid aftertaste. It was sublime. This is officially my go-to pasta salad from now on.
This recipe comes from Bon Appetit Magazine although I made quite a few changes. One of the things I did was add sun-dried tomatoes because I felt like it needed the color and that wonderful sharp flavor that they add. Let’s talk about sun-dried tomatoes. I never buy the kind that are packed in oil. The formerly (pre-babies) weight-conscious me just can’t go there. Plus what do you do with all that oil? The kind that you have to reconstitute with water – those are flavorless. Once in a while, I find a special kind that are not packed in oil, but are ready to use; they don’t have to be reconstitued. They are supple enough to cut easily and have great flavor. I most recently found them in Metropolitan Market but have also found them in the produce section of QFC (Kroger’s). If you find some and aren’t sure if they are the right kind, just give them a bend through the package. If they feel brittle, move on. If they feel supple, stock up because they last indefinitely in the pantry.
Finally, let’s talk about pine nuts. Like many nuts, pine nuts really hit their stride only once they have been toasted. But they go from being toasted to burnt toast in about 4 seconds. I can’t tell you how many times I have thrown away dark dark brown pine nuts. So here is my easy way of getting them perfect. Put them on the baking tray of a toaster oven heated to 350 degrees. Set your timer for 5 minutes (if you don’t set your timer, you will forget about them, trust me.) After five minutes, give them a shake, then set the timer for one more minute. Turn off the oven and if they look perfect, pull them out. If they still look a little pale, let them sit in the turned off toaster oven until they look golden brown.
Orzo with Broccoli, Feta, and Olives
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine
Orzo is a rice shaped pasta. If you are unable to find it, any small shape will do.
1 lb. orzo
2 lbs. broccoli, cut into small florets
1/4 cup olive oil
6 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
12 sun-dried tomato halves, thinly sliced cross-wise
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
6 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli florets and cook for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove to an ice water bath. Swish around with your hand until the water feels cool and then drain well. Add to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, add the orzo to the boiling water. Cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Taste to make sure. Drain well and add the olive oil; stir well.
While the pasta cools, add the sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, olives, red pepper flakes, and cheese to the broccoli. Check to make sure that the orzo isn’t sticking together. If it is, sprinkle with more olive oil. Add the orzo and basil to the bowl along with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.