Lately all of my favorite food websites and blogs have been awash in the bright, fresh colors of spring. From crisp asparagus to sweet fresh peas, there are signs of abundant warm-weather vegetables and salads everywhere I look. And while my senses love it all, on cooler spring afternoons, comfort food is still the order of the day. So last weekend I pulled together this creamy baked orzo to have for a lazy lunch when lofty plans for hiking flew out the window at the first sign of a drizzle.
The idea for this baked orzo was planted when I saw a recipe in Food & Wine a few issues back for a Custardy Baked Orzo with Spinach and Feta. I loved the idea of baking the orzo in a custard base, but I wanted to lighten it up just a little (by using low-fat yogurt and milk), use some of the fresh herbs from our garden, and make it a bit more focused around spring flavors. I snatched up some nice looking leeks at the store, bought a small bit of ham, and got to work. The result is a creamy, delicious bite of spring, all in one bowl.
While orzo works well for this recipe because it cooks down into the custard base to create a true spring casserole, you could use any small pasta you really like here. And certainly any seasonal vegetable: in the summer, fresh corn and leeks would be wonderful; in the fall or winter, I might even go with hearty greens and gruyere.
When you head to the market to pick up the ingredients for this recipe, don't buy the deli ham in the packages. You want thick, little diced pieces of ham — to get this, I just go straight to the butcher and ask for a thick, 4-ounce cut of ham and then dice it when I get home. Most of the effort here is in a little simple chopping and quick sautéing. The rest of the spring casserole takes care of itself in the oven, so that you can go out and tend to the garden. Or sit on the porch. Or catch up with an old friend. You get the picture.
Creamy Baked Orzo with Ham, Peas and Leeks
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish
1 1/4 cup orzo
2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for the pan
1 pound leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 pound (4 ounces) cooked ham steak, coarsely diced into small cubes (scant 1 cup)
3/4 cup fresh or frozen peas
3 ounces (1/2 cup) goat cheese
3 large eggs
1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
2 tablespoons fresh chopped chives
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to season
Few grinds fresh black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil a 2-quart baking dish.
Fill a medium pan with salted water and bring to a boil. Cook the orzo until al dente, about 5-7 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a large skillet over medium heat, warm olive oil until shimmering. Add sliced leeks and cook until translucent, about 7-9 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Fold in the diced ham, peas and orzo, stir well, and cook until all the ingredients are warmed through. Fold in the goat cheese and set aside off the heat to cool slightly, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, milk, fresh herbs, salt and pepper. Fold the orzo mixture into the milk mixture and stir to combine.
Scrape the creamy orzo into the prepared baking dish and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is slightly browned along the edges and the center is set completely. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot; season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- You could easily make this recipe vegetarian simply by omitting the ham and adding another vegetable that you love: zucchini or asparagus would be great.
(Images: Megan Gordon)