Cooking and baking are activities I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. They engage all the senses, and if you’re feeding family and friends, they engage your heart too. Our favorite recipes, well mine at least, almost all have a warm and fuzzy memory attached to them. As I watch my parents become more frail, more forgetful, I’m reminded of how important it is to document the special moments in our lives, otherwise, one day they’ll slip away with us, gone forever. So each Thursday, I’m planning to post a recipe, along with a memory, on my blog. It will be a dish relevant to the season, tried and true, with love from my kitchen to yours.
Whenever I’m asked to bring a side dish to a summer cookout, Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds is one of my go-to dishes. It can be made ahead, transports well, and can safely sit out of the refrigerator for a long time. Plus, almost everyone loves it.
My oldest son went to college in Minnesota, and for graduation weekend the seniors on the football team, of which he was a member, decided to have a cookout for family and friends. The guys on the team would provide the meat for the grill, and their families would bring side dishes, drinks, dessert, and paper goods. It sounded like a wonderful idea to have everyone together one last time.
When my son called to tell me about the plan, I offered to bring dessert, paper goods, or drinks. Normally I would have been happy to bring a side dish, but we lived in Rhode Island at the time, approximately 1400 miles from Minnesota, and we were flying in for the graduation. “Uh, actually Mom, we’re all set with those things. I signed us up to bring a side dish. There will be about three hundred people, maybe more, at the cookout.” In case you don’t have boys, us means you here.
Schlepping a side dish for three hundred people halfway across the country, really? I thought it in my snarkiest voice, but I didn’t say it. He was my first born, and for twenty-one years I’d already done so many ridiculous things to ensure he was happy, safe and felt loved. This would be just one more absurdity to add to the ever-growing list.
After hours on the phone trying to find a place near his college where I could purchase a large quantity of a “side dish”, I gave up. I looked at my husband, “I’ll make a recipe that can be easily multiplied and travels well.” We’d been married a long time, so he did what any sensible, experienced husband would have done: he kept his mouth shut. I knew exactly what he was thinking, anyway.
I turned to my trusty Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds—it was a big hit. It traveled well in four enormous Rubbermaid containers stuffed into two large duffle bags. The bags were so heavy, my husband, and my seventeen-year-old son who was mortified by the whole thing, had to carry them through the airport to security. They put the bags on the conveyor belt, and I agreed to take full responsibility for seeing them through security. And that’s where I had a Rhode Island moment.
The young, male TSA screener questioned me about the contents of the bags. “It’s orzo that I made for my son’s college graduation party. It’s for a cookout they’re having.” The TSA screener nodded, and waved me on without blinking an eye. I chuckled to myself—he must have been a first-born child.
Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds
1 cup of orzo
¼ teaspoon of saffron threads, crumbled **
2 teaspoons of orange zest
3 Tablespoons of fresh orange juice **
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3-4 scallions white and green parts, sliced thin
½ cup dried cherries
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted (take the time to toast them, it’s worth it)
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large saucepan, add the orzo and the saffron to 6 cups of salted boiling water. Cook for 8 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Drain, and let the orzo sit in the strainer to dry a bit.
2. While the pasta is cooking: In a small bowl stir together the zest, orange juice, and salt and pepper to taste, adding the oil in a stream, whisking until it is emulsified. Set aside.
3. In a serving bowl toss the orzo (drained well, but still a bit warm), with the dressing, the cherries and three-quarters of the green onions. Just before serving, add the toasted almonds and the remainder of the scallion, taste for salt and drizzle on up to an additional tablespoon of orange juice, if you have any left. Serve the orzo at room temperature.
Can be made a day or two ahead, refrigerated and brought to room temperature before adding the nuts and scallions. If making it more than 24 hours in advance, don’t add the cherries until the day you serve it otherwise they absorb too much liquid. See note below about saffron.
**If you’re making this in HUGE quantities, you can use “freshly squeezed” juice from a carton to make your life easier. There’s no good substitute for saffron, and it can be a very expensive spice to buy at the regular grocery store, but if you have an Indian or Spanish grocery store nearby, it will be much more reasonably priced.
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine