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 up with all the fall vegetable flavors. Onions, garlic, mushrooms, sweet potato — preferably dark and caramelized, 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 those 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 six-quart sauté pan, although a four-quart should work as well. If you don't have a straight-sided sauté pan, just use your widest, deepest skillet.
Orzo Caramelized with Fall Vegetables & Ginger
8 ounces orzo pasta
Grapeseed, peanut, or vegetable oil
1 large sweet potato (about 12 ounces), diced
2 medium onions (about 1 pound total), finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps diced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 big leaves Swiss chard or kale, stalks removed and leaves finely chopped (about 2 cups)
Freshly ground black pepper
Shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
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.
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 a single layer. Cook over high heat until they begin to caramelize and turn brown, about 4 minutes. Flip the sweet potatoes and cook for 3 minutes more.
Turn the heat down to medium and push the sweet potatoes up in a pile against one side of the pan. Add the onions to the center of the pan and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Add the garlic and 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 mushrooms to the hot center of the pan and cook for 4 minutes without turning them. Stir the mushrooms and cook for 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 for 3 minutes.
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, letting the orzo get browned on the bottom of the pan, then scraping it up, for about 5 minutes. You are developing a little more color and flavor on the pasta, and helping all the flavors combine.
Add the greens and cook until they're barely wilted, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, taste, and season as 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.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.