Pilafs of pasta

Herb-accented orzo is perfect with the entrees of braised beef and baked salmon fillet.

orzo 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
orzo 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"This orzo is delicious," was my husband's comment at a bar mitzva dinner in which we sampled a variety of delicacies from smoked salmon to kubbeh to stuffed mushrooms. Among the eclectic array of foods, it was this humble side dish that elicited his praise. The flavorful, herb-accented orzo was prepared pilaf style, and was perfect with the entrees of braised beef and baked salmon fillet accompanied by asparagus spears and glazed carrots. Orzo is a pasta shaped like barley or rice. You can cook it in lots of water like any other pasta, but if you prepare it like rice pilaf, the result is creamy textured and rich tasting even if you add very little oil or butter. You sauté the dry grains briefly in a saucepan to toast them lightly, and then add hot broth. As the orzo simmers, it absorbs flavor from the broth, so it tastes good without a sauce. Cooking orzo as pilaf is convenient too. It keeps its texture even when reheated, and therefore can be prepared in advance. Since you don't need to boil a big pot of water to cook the orzo, you avoid heating up the kitchen. In their Italian cookbook, The New Complete Book of Pasta, Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott use orzo as a savory stuffing for tomatoes. They put mozzarella cheese cubes in seasoned hollowed out tomatoes, then fill them with orzo pilaf made with butter-sautéed onions and grated Parmesan, and bake the stuffed tomatoes with a little broth. To make Milanese orzo, as an easier alternative to the classic risotto milanese that accompanies osso buco, they heat orzo with sautéed onions and garlic, add broth, and finish the orzo with Asiago cheese and saffron. Another pasta that can be prepared as pilaf is called egg barley or pasta farfel - not to be confused with matza farfel, which is simply matza broken into small squares. Egg barley is tiny bits of pasta, a little larger than couscous (which can also be cooked as pilaf). There is a brown version too, of toasted egg barley. Like all pasta, egg barley used to be made at home, from stiff egg noodle dough that was coarsely grated and left to dry. "This traditional Ashkenazi pasta - known as barley farfel and egg barley - was once made from barley or a combination of grains," wrote Gil Marks in The World of Jewish Cooking. "Although the modern version contains only wheat, the pasta shapes are still the size of barley grains, hence its English name." In Israel, egg barley is sold in packages labeled ptitim; the toasted ones are ptitim afuyim. Both these Hebrew terms cover a variety of shapes; when you want egg barley, look for the ones shaped in tiny bits. To cook egg barley the old-fashioned way, Molly Lyons Bar-David, author of The Israeli Cookbook (published in 1964), sautéed it with fried onions - fried in chicken fat, of course! - until brown, added soup and cooked the pasta until it doubled in size. Even long pasta shapes can be cooked by the pilaf method, as long as they are very thin, like Mexican fideos or vermicelli. The pasta is broken into short pieces, sautéed in a deep frying pan and cooked gently in just the amount of broth it will absorb. In a Mexican fideos recipe, the browned noodles cook with chicken broth, tomatoes, sautéed onions, garlic and hot peppers. Pasta pilafs are delicious with all sorts of ingredients, from diced vegetables to roasted sweet pumpkin to toasted nuts to dried fruits, and with a wide range of flavors, from Mediterranean to East Asian to South American. They are simple to prepare and can be served not only as side dishes, but also as stuffings for chicken and as satisfying salads. ORZO WITH APRICOTS AND CASHEWS Serving this lively pilaf as a side dish or stuffing turns an ordinary chicken dinner into a celebration. If you like, substitute raisins for the apricots and toasted pecans or slivered almonds for the cashews. 4 Tbsp, vegetable oil 1 onion, chopped, or 1⁄4 cup chopped green onions 11⁄2 cups orzo or riso (rice-shaped pasta) 1⁄2 cup diced dried apricots 3 cups hot chicken broth 1 tsp. ground ginger 2⁄3 cup toasted cashews 1⁄3 cup chopped parsley salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper Heat oil in a medium saucepan. If using regular onion, sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes or until beginning to turn golden; if using green onions, sauté for 1 minute. Add orzo and cook over low heat, stirring, 3 minutes. Scatter diced apricots on top. Add broth and ginger and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 12 to 15 minutes or until orzo is tender. Fluff mixture with a fork to break up any lumps in orzo. Add cashews and parsley and toss mixture to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings. EGG BARLEY WITH DILL AND DICED VEGETABLES Egg barley is a traditional side dish for Friday night chicken. I like to liven it up it with plenty of vegetables and fresh herbs. Use either plain or toasted egg barley; they are interchangeable in recipes. You can also make this recipe with orzo; use 1 cup orzo and 2 cups broth. For meatless meals I make it with vegetable instead of chicken broth, and serve it sprinkled with grated Parmesan or Kashkaval cheese. 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil 100 gr. small mushrooms, halved and sliced 1 medium zucchini, diced salt and freshly ground pepper 1 large onion, chopped 2 celery stalks, diced 200 gr. egg barley, plain or toasted 31⁄2 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth, or half broth and half water 1 carrot, diced 1 Tbsp. snipped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large sauté pan. Add mushrooms, zucchini, salt and pepper. Sauté for about 3 minutes or until they are just tender. Remove from pan. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pan and heat it. Add onion and celery and sauté over medium heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes. Add egg barley and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Add hot broth, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add carrot and return to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until pasta is tender. Add mushroom mixture, dill and 1 tablespoon parsley to pan of egg barley and cook over low heat, stirring very gently, 1 or 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot, sprinkled with remaining parsley. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.