After the indulgences of Chocolate Monday, I always look for a healthy recipe to feature on Tuesdays. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we are in what we call our “Indian Summer.” Mid-September and October are when we get the most beautiful weather of the year. But the first part of September usually hits us with a heat wave. And this year is no exception. We are setting records all over the Bay Area – right now we’re well over 100 degrees! So even though autumn is right around the corner, today my mind is on cool meals.
Pasta salads are an easy way to utilize your fresh vegetables, and as you all know, I have tomatoes coming out of my ears, LOL. With our hot weather, the tomatoes are finally ripening on the vine – yippee! Our heirloom Black Cherry Tomatoes are perfect in this recipe, but you can use any tomato, just remove the seeds and chop into bite-sized pieces.
You can use any pasta that you like, but I love orzo for salads. It is a small, oval pasta that can be used in salads, soups, and casseroles. It is tender and the small size makes it especially easy to eat. When cooking the orzo, make sure you use enough salt that the water tastes salty. This is your only chance to flavor the pasta itself, and you will wind up with a flat flavor if you don’t use enough salt in the water.
You can use whatever protein you have on hand, but I like using chicken because it keeps the salad fairly low in calories. This is a perfect chance to use leftover chicken from your Sunday Supper, or to save time, you can use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. Cooked and chopped ham, salami, bacon, turkey, or even pork tenderloin are tasty additions. By using a vinaigrette instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing, you save even more calories and have a bright, fresh flavor to complement the other ingredients. I also like to add a little pepperoncini for a mildly spicy boost, but you can leave it out if you prefer.
This salad is extremely easy and quick to make, can be made ahead, and utilizes whatever you have in your refrigerator and pantry. I make it all year long. It is perfect for parties, picnics, tailgates, and barbecues. You can also serve it with a green salad and fresh fruit for a lovely brunch or luncheon.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
I like to cook pasta in chicken broth instead of water to add flavor and protein. Depending on what protein you’re using in the salad, you can use chicken, turkey, or beef stock instead of water. And if you prefer a vegetarian version, of course vegetable stock is a delicious alternative!
Kitchen Skill: Washing Spinach (or other Greens)
Why: To remove all gritty dirt and sand
How: After you have removed the stems from the leaves, fill a large pot or basin with cool water. Add the spinach and swirl around gently with your hands. Let the spinach sit in the water a few minutes without touching. Then, using your hands, very gently lift the spinach out of the water and set on a towel. Most of the grit and sand will have settled to the bottom of the container. Feel each leaf with your fingers and rinse any that still have grit on them. Dry thoroughly before continuing.
- Lemon Vinaigrette
- 3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tsp grated lemon zest
- 1 tbsp sherry or champagne vinegar
- Pinch of freshly ground pepper
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup pine nuts (you can also use pecans)
- 3/4 lb orzo pasta
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2-1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, halved, or medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 4 to 5 pepperoncini, drained, seeded, and sliced thinly, or other mild pepper
- 2 green onion, tough tops discarded, remaining chopped finely
- 6 oz baby spinach, stems removed, washed thoroughly, roughly chopped (see washing directions above)
- 1/4 cup freshly shredded or grated Parmesan cheese
- Make the vinaigrette: In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine all vinaigrette ingredients. Secure the lid and shake vigorously until ingredients are emulsified. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Toast the pine nuts: Preheat oven to 325°F. Place pine nuts on a baking sheet and bake for 3 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir and return to oven. Cook until you just start to see some color on the nuts. Due to their high oil content, pine nuts burn extremely easily. Watch them carefully!
- Cook the orzo: Bring a large pot of water (or you can use broth) to a boil over high heat. Add the 2 tbsp salt, stir to dissolve, and then stir in the orzo. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the pasta is al dente, according to the package instructions. It cooks quickly so keep a close eye on it. Strain in a wire mesh strainer, rinse under cold running water and shake to remove as much water as possible. Add the orzo to the vinaigrette and toss to coat evenly.
- Assemble the salad: Add the chicken, and remaining ingredients to the orzo and toss gently to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve cool, at room temperature or lightly warmed. Store, covered, in the refrigerator up to a week. Can be made up to 1 day ahead.
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