Don't you love the summer and all the fresh vegetables on offer? I turn into somewhat of a vegetarian every summer just because of all the beautiful produce available at the markets. I can't seem to get enough! Notice I said 'somewhat'...I mean, I live in one of the barbecue capitals of the world and seriously doubt I could ever walk away from barbecued ribs forever. Anyway...this isn't your boring, I-need-something-next-to-the meat side dish. This vegetarian dish effortlessly becomes the main attraction on any plate, delegating meat to a supporting role. This is like the Albert Brooks of side dishes...complex yet approachable, simple but just a tad sassy (although I'll admit there isn't really anything remotely comical about the dish)!
I am a strong believer in eating with the seasons and making the best of what Mother Nature naturally has to offer at any given time of the year, and this dish can easily be altered to feature whatever produce is in it's prime. I wanted to take advantage of the last weeks of asparagus, and to dive into the first weeks of the lovely tomatoes that I found at the market. The sweet red pepper and red onion are balanced out by the meaty mushrooms, in this case baby portobellos. The roasted asparagus is simply delicious and I think I could be quite happy with just a batch of that fresh out of the oven. I've actually over-roasted some in the past and ended up with an addictive, near chip-like version of crunchy, salty asparagus tops that I couldn't stop plucking off the hot pan, they were that good.
The flavor possibilities with this recipe are limited only by your fancy and imagination. By varying the spices and vegetables, you can make it your own. But I strongly urge you to use the Aleppo pepper whatever version you make. I found Aleppo pepper when searching for Middle Eastern spices and find I use it in so many dishes. I provides a subtle level of heat without the burn while imparting a distinctly unique flavor. I found mine online but have seen it in the local Mediterranean shops. If you haven't used it before, try it...you'll be hooked too! This is such a simple recipe to throw together and is packed with flavor even though the spice list is a short one...salt, pepper, Aleppo pepper and roasted garlic. I kept the seasonings simple so the flavor of all the different vegetables really shines through. Be careful with the roasted garlic cloves though, as you can get a nasty burn from the paste (the voice of experience, painful experience, speaking here).
Watch the roasted vegetables carefully, and cook only to the desired doneness. I love caramelized anything, so I tend to cook mine a little longer until everything is a beautiful deep brown. Just test the asparagus to make sure that it is cooked through. The tomatoes break down, give up their juices, and help 'dress' the other vegetables in their tomatoey, ripe and wonderful flavor of summer. Whole wheat orzo is great to use for side dishes. It has a chewy texture and wholesome flavor, and the shape seems to be the perfect size. I find the larger pasta tends to overpower whatever salad or side that it is used in. The whole wheat orzo is very high in fiber, which is another great reason to use it. What's great about this recipe, besides the killer flavor, is that is really quite good for you--olive oil, loads of vegetables and whole grain goodness.
I've made this many times this summer already (and am literally enjoying a bowl right now as I type...all in the name of blog research of course). It was a big hit with friends that we had over recently for a lovely outdoor meal on the patio, and seconds were had by all. This dish, whether made as a side or main course, is truly a star and you will most definitely be showered with accolades premiering this at you next meal. Well, actually the summer bounty is the star, but you can be the director, producer, casting specialist, editor....
1 1/2 cup whole wheat orzo
1 large red onion, sliced in 1/2-inch thick rings, then rough chopped
5 to 6 large cloves of garlic, skins on but top tips sliced off
1 large or 2 small to medium red peppers, seeds and veins removed, cut into rough dice about 3/4-inch
5 - 6 roma tomatoes, quartered and cubed, seeds, stems and ends removed
1 bunch asparagus, snapped and cut into 2-inch sections
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes, amount to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Manchego cheese, about 2 ounces, optional
Flat leaf (Italian) parsley, optional
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Set a pot large enough to hold the orzo and a generous amount of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is at a vigorous boil, add a generous portion of salt, and cook the orzo until al dente per instructions while the vegetables are roasting. Drain well, swirl in a tad of olive oil to keep from sticking, place the lid back on the pot and set aside.
Grease a large baking sheet or roasting pan with olive oil.
Place all of the vegetables on the baking sheet, toss with the olive oil, and dust with a generous amount of salt, pepper and the Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes. Place in the hot oven and roast for approximately 30 minutes, until all of the vegetables are lightly browned and caramelized, or to desired doneness. Make sure to stir the vegetables every ten minutes for even browning. Check the garlic with a fork to make sure the garlic is soft inside the skins. Remove the pan from the oven, and remove the garlic cloves to a small plate to cool slightly. Once cool enough the handle, squeeze out the softened garlic paste being careful to remove any of the skins (and watch your fingers as the paste is molten hot). Place all of the roasted garlic paste into the cooked and drained orzo and stir until evenly distributed. Add the other vegetables and mix together. Salt to taste. Top with thin shavings of Manchego cheese and/or the parsley if using.
This is best served immediately after making but will also keep and can be reheated, although the vegetables will soften.
Will serve approximately four to six people as a side dish, or two to three as a main dish.