Orzo Salad…and some great tips on Balsamic Vinegar

I love a salad recipe that lets me follow my whims. I love any dish that is so forgiving that I can omit or add vegetables and cheeses according to my mood, or according to what is in my refrigerator at the moment.

This is just such a salad. It is yet another gift from my Missouri friend, Courtney. She sent it to me because a while back I was lamenting how easily Pine nuts go to waste and how I would love some new recipes that use them. The main difference in her preparation and mine is that she uses sun dried tomatoes and uses the oil from the sun dried tomatoes. I used fresh grape tomatoes and olive oil. And I used twice as much fresh spinach as she did. If you like spinach, I think the salad could still easily accommodate more. I have a feeling that the sun dried version would be fabulous, too. I can’t wait to make that one, but I needed to use the grape tomatoes I had on hand.

Now, one caveat. This salad will be only as good as the Balsamic vinegar that you choose. You can get away with a lot in dressings that have spices and sugar and mustard mixed into it. But this is just oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. I used a fantastic vinegar called Aceto Balsamico de Modena by Fattoria Estense which I purchased at Sur La Table. This vinegar is so good that I could easily drink it out of the bottle. But it does cost about 20 bucks. I used about 1/3 of a cup and I used a little more to freshen up the leftovers the next day so you just have to decide if the recipe is worth using $5 worth of vinegar before you make it. This makes a very large bowl of salad and would be a welcome cold dish to take to a picnic or a potluck. So for my money, I say this is a good use of an exceptional ingredient. Most of the other ingredients are relatively inexpensive.  If you do take this salad somewhere, take a little of the vinegar to sprinkle on the top before serving it.

Allow me to recommend another Balsamic option. We have a wonderful little shop in Dallas called Flavors From Afar. The proprietors are truly passionate educators when it comes to fine olive oil and Balsamic Vinegar. You may go into their store in Snider Plaza and sample many products and find out for yourself what you like. It is an incredible benefit because I find this to be a very personal and dish-specific decision. I asked Nancy Krabill, who owns the shop with her husband, what she would recommend for this sort of application and she suggested Ariston or Oliviers & Co. because they are sweet and concentrated and the Aristone has a very modest price for the quality of the vinegar. She also recommended one that I like very much and have tried before, Acetaia Leonardi 3 year and 5 year. Nancy very generously offered that any PIE readers can enjoy a 20% discount on a Balsamic Vinegar purchase. Just mention The Meaning of Pie.  You should also keep these vinegars in mind for gifts. They really are a treat. Thank you, Nancy.

Someday I need to do an entire post on oils and Balsamic Vinegar. I am so frugal when it comes to so many things. But I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that with oils and Balsamic Vinegar, you get what you pay for and paying for an excellent Balsamic Vinegar can make the difference between a dish being average and being transcendent. So go visit Flavors from Afar or give them a call if you are from out of town. I think we all get fatigued from the monolith companies where you can get a billion products but can’t find a person to help you figure out the direction in which you should go. Well, Flavors From Afar is an antidote for that.

1 pound orzo pasta
6 ounces feta (or more)
¾ cup fresh basil, chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes
2 cups fresh spinach, cut into strips
½ cup chopped red onion (or a little more)
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1/3 cup good Balsamic Vinegar (and more to taste, but start at 1/3)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil (if using sun dried tomatoes instead of the grape tomatoes, use the oil from the jar)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

First, toast the pine nuts. You can do this by gently shaking them around in a skillet over medium heat for a minute or you can put them on a cookie sheet in a 325 degree oven for 4 to 5 minutes. But watch them closely and check on them often because burnt nuts smell disgusting. Allow the pine nuts to cool.

You should begin your vegetable preparation before boiling the pasta. But consider preparing the basil and spinach last because they can get a little gross if they sit too long after you chop them. I cut spinach by stacking up the leaves. I then roll them up like a cigar and chop it. It is easier that way. Also, I have a thing about tomato seeds, so after I halve the tomatoes (quartering the larger ones) I set them out on a paper towel to drain and even squish out a lot of the seeds, trying not to actually squish the tomatoes. Obviously, you can skip that time consuming and finicky exercise.

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and rinse it with cold water. After the pasta is well drained, add a little of the olive oil and stir it in to keep the pasta from sticking together. The pasta should be at least at room temperature before you add the other ingredients. Add the vegetables to the pasta. Add the remaining oil and the vinegar and stir to combine. Then add the feta and pine nuts and stir again. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the salad until it is chilled.

Enjoy! Thanks (yet again) Courtney!

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14 comments to Orzo Salad…and some great tips on Balsamic Vinegar

  • Susan, MF's daughter, cuzin'

    Made the orzo salad, Sunday for dinner, and your lemon spinach chicken “for the 2nd time”. Doubled the chicken recipe this time for 5 people, I only had enough left over to take to work for lunch!You are spoiling my family! I haven’t cooked this much in the last 5 years! Olives!

  • Hi folks! Just wanted to update you on the Balsamic vinegar supply at Flavors From Afar – we’ve had a run on the good stuff and should have already received new shipments. So come on down for a tasting or call if there is something specific you would like. If we are out of your favorite, we’ll give you 50% off as a raincheck! Take care and come visit soon – Nancy Krabill

  • ccg

    Olivia, clearly you know “The Meaning of Pie.”

  • Courtney

    You’re very welcome. I am glad you liked it! My sister gave me this recipe. I like to take it to potlucks…. because it is different than the typical pasta salad dish. I also love balsamic vinegar. I have been spoiled using the wonderful Oliviers & Co. you gave me Kelly. I loved receiving it as a gift! I am also enjoying the Texas Olive Ranch olive oil. I like your idea of adding more spinach. By the way, I feel the same way about tomatoes. I go through the same process if I ever use them.

  • I look forward to your possible post on oils and vinegars. I refuse to purchase ‘cheap’ balsamic vinegar after I discovered the real deal at a winery in Napa Valley (Vincent Arroyo). A recent post of mine mentions how wonderful it is! It’s become an addiction, and now I have to order it and have it shipped across the country!

    Oh, and the salad looks delicious!

  • Sharon

    As you wish, dear cousin Carol. “Olives” is short for “olive you” and comes from my favorite knock knock joke (shared because Kelly likes her kids’ kk jokes):
    Knock Knock
    Who’s there?
    Olive who?
    Olive you!

    I may change my contributing name to Olivia.

  • Susan Burns

    Your recipes are wonderful Kelly, and the photos, too. I love reading “Pie”.
    The spinach preparation is called “chiffonade”, by the way. I make this sort of salad with Orecchiete, also… but the orzo is brillant.
    You know, I’m sure, that if you tear, not cut, your basil, that it will not blacken. and get “gross” as you put it.

  • Alana Abbott

    Wonderful recipe and beautiful photographs! Courtney is a friend of mine who referred me to your blog which has become a firm favorite. Congratulations. Alana

  • Kelly

    Olives to you to, Sharon! In my heart but not on my plate, that is.

  • Kelly

    Artichoke hearts are a brilliant addition! I’ll definitely do that next time.

  • ccg

    Sharon, you must explain to Kelly’s kitchen friends the olives reference. It is too cute to not share, my cousin.

  • Sharon

    Another good one – the comments as much as the recipe! I love your suggestion of variations according to what’s in the fridge. Balsamic vinegar – yum! Another drinkable one at a reasonable price is Trader Joe’s Gold Quality (if you have a Trader Joe’s). And it comes in a great small square decanter that makes a nice single (or few) stem vase afterward. Thanks again for the inspirations. olives!

  • Joey

    Yum. I make one similar to this and put in marinated artichoke hearts. I’ll have to try the pine nuts. It sounds delicious!

  • I can’t even keep up with all your delightful recipes! Yum!

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