I have been thinking about orzo this week, trying to figure out what to do with it. I love orzo — its plump, chewy grains so much like rice, but on a grander scale, and with the tenderness of pasta. But I don't cook with it often enough, which seems silly, given how fast it can be. So I mused over what I would really like to eat right now and came back up with all the fall vegetable flavors from last week — caramelized onions, garlic, mushrooms, sweet potato. Preferably dark and caramelized, which is the flavor profile of this whole dish, as it is built from the ground up in one big skillet, browning, caramelizing, and sautéeing until you're left with a big pile of chewy orzo and dark, delicious fall vegetables.
After the pasta is cooked, you only use one more big sauté pan to put this dish together. It takes some hands-on time, but it's very satisfying, layering each component and flavor on top of the previous. You really see how flavor is built and where each taste in the dish comes from.
This is also a satisfying dish to eat — there's no meat, and it's even vegan, if you leave off the final sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. But I would happily serve this to a crowd of dedicated meat-eaters; it's one of these dishes that really spans a group of various preferences.
A few technical notes on this dish: It's best to use your biggest stove burner, and your biggest sauté pan. I used a great big 6-quart sauté pan, although a 4-quart should work OK as well. If you don't have a straight-sided sauté pan just use your widest, deepest skillet.
I have a slideshow here with photos, too, of most of the steps in the process, showing you how I caramelized each ingredient, then pushed them aside to soften and cook down while I went on to the next one.
Orzo Caramelized with Fall Vegetables & Ginger
1/2 pound orzo pasta
Grapeseed, peanut, or vegetable oil
1 large sweet potato (about 3/4 pound)
2 medium onions (about 1 pound), finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3-inch piece fresh ginger — peeled and grated, about 1 tablespoon
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps diced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 big leaves chard or kale, stalks removed and leaves finely chopped — about 2 cups
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large pot of water to boiling and salt it generously. Cook the orzo until barely al dente — about 6 to 7 minutes. Drain and toss with a generous drizzle of oil so that the grains of orzo are lightly coated with oil. Set aside.
Peel the sweet potato and dice it finely into cubes about 1/4 to 1/2 inch to a side. Heat a large sauté or frying pan (the largest you have — you want plenty of room and hot surface) over high heat. Drizzle in a little grapeseed or vegetable oil (not olive oil — you want an oil with a high smoke point) and heat until very hot. Add the sweet potatoes and arrange them in one layer. Cook them over high heat until they are beginning to caramelize and turn brown — about 4 minutes. Flip them over and cook for another 3 minutes or so.
Turn the heat down to medium and push the sweet potatoes up in a pile against one side of the pan. Add the diced onions to the center of the pan and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Add the minced garlic and grated ginger and stir them into the onions. Push the onions off to the side of the pan, next to the sweet potatoes, where they will continue to caramelize.
Add the diced shiitake mushrooms to the hot center of the pan and cook them for 4 minutes without turning them. Then flip and stir them and cook for another 4 minutes.
At this point everything should be getting well-cooked; the onions should be quite dark brown and the garlic should be golden and soft. The potatoes should be softening.
Whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour this into the pan with the vegetables and mix everything together, scraping the bottom as you go. Cook all the elements together for about 3 minutes on medium heat. Then turn the heat up to high, as high as it will go.
Add the orzo gradually, shaking in a cup at a time, and stirring and scraping constantly. Cook the orzo over high heat with the rest of the vegetables for about 5 minutes, letting the orzo get browned on the bottom of the pan, then scraping it up. You are developing a little more color and flavor on the pasta, and helping all the flavors combine.
Finally, toss the chopped greens into the mix and cook for 1 more minute or until the greens are barely wilted. Turn off the heat and taste. Add salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot, with shavings of Parmesan if desired.
• For vegans: Leave off the cheese.
• For omnivores: If desired, render a little bacon, sausage, or guanciale fat in the beginning, and use this to cook the vegetables. Keep the meat in too.
(Images: Faith Durand)