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A caramelized orzo dish that will satisfy vegans and carnivores alike

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

There are few pastas more satisfying than orzo, with its plump, chewy grains so much like rice, but on a grander scale and more tender. But it's often overlooked even by convenience-minded cooks, which is silly, given how fast it can be to prepare.

One of my favorite ways to eat it is with caramelized onions, garlic, mushrooms and sweet potato. Dark and caramelized is the flavor profile of this whole dish, as it is built from the ground up in one big skillet, browning, caramelizing and sauteeing until you're left with a big pile of chewy orzo and dark, delicious vegetables.

After the pasta is cooked, you only use one more big saute pan to put this dish together. It takes hands-on time, but it's 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 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 happily would serve this to a crowd of dedicated meat-eaters; it's one of these 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 saute pan. I used a 6-quart saute pan, although a 4-quart should work OK, as well. If you don't have a straight-sided saute pan, just use your widest, deepest skillet.

As a variation 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.

Orzo Wth Caramelized Vegetables and Ginger

  • Water
  • Salt
  • 1/2 pound orzo pasta
  • Grapeseed, peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 large sweet potato (about 3/4 pound)
  • 2 medium-size onions (about 1 pound), finely diced
  • 4 medium-size cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated, about 1 tablespoon
  • 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps diced
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 big leaves chard or kale, stalks removed and leaves finely chopped — about 2 cups
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Parmesan cheese, optional

Heat a large pot of water to boiling and salt it generously. Cook the orzo until barelyal dente for 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.

Peel the sweet potato and dice it finely into cubes about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Heat a large saute 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 one layer. Cook them over high heat until they are beginning to caramelize and turn brown, for about 4 minutes. Flip them over and cook for another 3 minutes or so.

Turn the heat down to medium and push the sweet potatoes into a pile against one side of the pan. Add the diced onions to the center of the pan and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Add the minced garlic and grated ginger root 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 diced shiitake mushrooms to the hot center of the pan and cook for 4 minutes without turning them. Then, flip and stir them and cook for another 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 the vinegar, soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour this into the pan with the vegetables and mix, scraping the bottom as you go. Cook the elements together for about 3 minutes on medium heat. Then, 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 the orzo over high heat with the rest of the vegetables for about

5 minutes, letting the orzo get browned on the bottom of the pan, then scraping it up. You are developing a little more color and flavor on the pasta, and helping the flavors combine.

Finally, toss the chopped greens into the mix and cook for 1 more minute, or until the greens are barely wilted. Turn off the heat and taste. Add salt and pepper, if needed. Serve hot, with shavings of parmesan if desired.

Makes 4 main-dish servings or 6 side-dish servings.

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