Summer Vegetable Baked Orzo

One of the best things about summertime is the bounty of produce that’s in season. The farmers markets and even the grocery stores are full of vibrant veggies, and eating what’s in season means it’s more likely that those veggies didn’t travel halfway around the world to end up in your shopping basket. It’s also cheaper and tastes better! Our local stores even include signage to indicate which deliciousness was grown nearby. Even if it’s not from my own garden, I like knowing our dinner comes from just down the road.

Last week, I had a pile of beautiful veggies on hand: zucchini, squash, carrot, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms. I wanted to transform them into a tasty dinner without losing their fresh veggie-ness and wasn’t in the mood for a stir-fry. I decided to combine them with some orzo pasta, a light sauce, and herbs and bake them. Chop, chop!

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While I chopped my colorful veggies, I cooked some orzo in chicken broth (veggie broth or water would work just fine). Orzo is a small, rice-shaped pasta and it was tender before I knew it! I drained it, set it aside, and turned my attention to the veggies.

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I heated a combination of butter and olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat and started softening some shallots, seasoning them with some salt and pepper to get them going. I started sautéing the veggies, starting with the hardiest ones (carrot, pepper, asparagus) first because they’d take a little bit longer. After a few minutes, I added in the rest of the veggies (squash, zucchini, and mushrooms).

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I didn’t let the veggies cook for too long because I wanted them to retain some of their crunch, plus they would be baking in the oven for a bit. After five minutes or so, I added some sherry to the pan and let it cook down before stirring in a bit of cream. Next came some semi-thawed frozen peas and two kinds of cheese to hold it all together.

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The cooked orzo rejoined the veggie party, which was now enjoying a lightly creamy and cheesy situation. For the last couple of minutes, I stirred in some fresh cherry tomatoes and a palm-full of thyme. YUM!

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The veggie-orzo-cheese mixture could have been served up on a plate as-is. Look at how vibrant the veggies still are! Instead, I poured the whole thing into a casserole dish, added some seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese on top, and popped it in the oven until the top was browned and perfect (about 20 minutes). A sprinkling of fresh basil, a side salad made from homegrown greens and tomatoes, and it’s suppertime…summer style!

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Each forkful is a taste of summer’s harvest- a new vegetable in every bite. The veggies are not mushy; they retain their crunch and true flavor (which is at its best this time of year). The baked crispy parmesan and bread crumb topping brings texture that balances the creamy orzo. The cheesy sauce is so light- it adds flavor and holds the dish together but isn’t a main feature as in, say, a macaroni and cheese. It’s all about the veggies.

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Truly, any veggies will work in this recipe. If you can’t find orzo, any small pasta would work. You could also switch out the orzo for brown rice or quinoa, and other cheeses would be just as delicious! You could even add grilled chicken if you wanted additional protein. What I love about recipes like this is that they are versatile- perfect for a weeknight when you want a healthy plate of food but don’t have time to hit the grocery store for specific ingredients.

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It won’t be long until “in-season” means apples and beets and pumpkin and root vegetables, with a whole new set of fabulous fall-inspired recipes. But for now, while we can, let’s savor our summer at the farmers market and in the garden! YUM.

Summer Vegetable Baked Orzo (inspired by this)

You’ll need:

  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 ½ cups dry orzo pasta
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 cups various chopped veggies (I used zucchini, yellow squash, asparagus, bell pepper, carrot, shitake mushrooms)
  • ¾ cup frozen peas, thawed
  • ¾ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ½ cup dry cooking sherry (or white wine)
  • ½ cup half-and-half
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (I used mozzarella and Gruyere)
  • Heaping tablespoon dried thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh chopped basil

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the orzo and cook to al dente (according to package directions). Drain and set aside.

In a deep saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. When the shallot has become semi-translucent, start adding the veggies in stages, starting with the hardiest ones. Sauté each batch for a few minutes before adding the next batch. Don’t overcook the veggies; they should still have a significant bite to them.

Pour in the sherry and let it cook down for a few minutes, then add the cream. Turn down the heat to low. Add the cheese and peas and allow the cheese to melt into the sauce. Add the cooked orzo, fresh tomatoes, and thyme and warm through. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare a casserole dish with cooking spray. Pour the orzo-veggie mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle a handful of seasoned breadcrumbs over the top, followed by shredded Parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 minutes or so, until the orzo mixture is bubbling around the edges and the top is starting to brown. (For a browner top, switch the oven to “broil” for a couple of minutes.) Serve in big piles with fresh basil sprinkled on top. Don’t forget a garden-fresh salad! Cheers to summer’s bounty. YUM.

Hungry for more? Check out the collection of recipes on the FOOD BLISS page

The New 52: A recipe for each week in 2015

One year ago: An August update of last year’s veggie garden

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