What is a summer picnic without its side salads? This one is particularly well-suited to the potluck table. The bright green pasta beckons from across the lawn, and the pungent flavors of olives and crumbly feta make an irresistible companion to grilled chicken and grilled fish. Yup, this salad is destined for picnic glory.
The inspiration for this recipe came from a prepared salad I picked up at the store to serve alongside my Beer-Brined Chicken Breasts. It was a decent enough salad, but I thought that it had the potential to be much better.
My basic strategy was to make the same salad, but more! More feta and olives for their punchy, salty flavor. More shallots for their spice and subtle crunch. Better olive oil in the pesto and a squeeze of lemon to brighten all the flavors.
In the case of this particular salad, more was definitely better. I couldn't stop spooning little tastes from the bowl, even as I packed it away for future dinners.
This is one of those salads that improves the more it sits. I recommend making it the day before your gathering and bringing it still cold from the fridge. It will keep on a table at room temperature for several hours, tempting passerby with its fresh, garlicky aroma. Because one more scoop of side salad never hurt anyone.
Orzo Salad with Spinach Pesto, Olives & Feta
Serves 8 to 10 as a side salad
Note: Feel free to halve this recipe for a smaller gathering
For the pesto:
6-8 ounces baby spinach
1/3 cup walnuts
1/3 cup grated parmesan, lightly packed
1-2 garlic cloves, depending on your love of raw garlic
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons good olive oil
For the salad:
1 pound orzo pasta
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1 clove shallot, diced small
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper
Layer about half the spinach into the bowl of a food processor or blender and disperse the walnuts, parmesan, cloves, lemon juice, and salt on top. Pulse until the ingredients are incorporated and the spinach is roughly chopped. Add the remaining spinach. With the motor running, stream 3 tablespoons of olive oil into the spinach until it is saucy. Scrape down the sides and give it a taste. Add more salt or lemon juice to taste. If you'd like a richer pesto, stream in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.
Cook the orzo in boiling well-salted water until it is al dente, about 8 minutes. Strain and immediately combine with the pesto while the pasta is still warm. Add the feta, olives, shallots, and lemon juice to the pasta and stir gently to combine. Taste, and add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice as needed.
Let the salad cool and then refrigerate for up to a week. The flavors improve by the second day.
Related: 5 Ways to Eat Spinach
(Images: Emma Christensen)