- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When I, like most cooks, decide to have a dinner party, I usually pick the main course first, then figure out the rest of the menu. Rarely does a side dish become the inspiration for a meal.

Recently, though, after testing a recipe for buttered orzo tossed with peas, fresh mint and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, I changed my mind. I was so excited about this delectable spring pasta and vegetable creation that I planned an entire menu around it for an upcoming dinner for friends.

Orzo, the oval-shaped pasta that looks like large grains of barley, can be cooked simply in boiling salted water for a few minutes until tender, then drained, tossed in butter and, if desired, seasoned with some freshly grated cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

It can also be prepared like a pilaf where the pasta grains are coated in melted butter, then simmered in stock, resulting, in my opinion, in a much more flavorful dish. It was this latter technique that I used for the following recipe.

When the orzo had cooked in the stock to the point that it was tender, but not mushy (a slight shade beyond al dente), I added peas and sliced green onions and cooked these vegetables a couple of minutes more.

Although I used good-quality frozen peas (defrosted and drained), if you are lucky enough to find fresh peas, by all means, use those instead. They will need 3 to 4 minutes cooking time, while the frozen ones will require only a couple of minutes.

After the vegetables were done, chopped mint and grated cheese were stirred into the pasta. Presto, in less than 20 minutes, I had a colorful dish brimming with color and bursting with flavor.

This versatile orzo could be partnered with any number of entrees. It would make a beautiful side to baked salmon, roast chicken or grilled skewered shrimp. For my menu, I’m planning to pair it with grilled garlic and rosemary-rubbed lamb chops.

An arugula salad tossed in lemon juice and olive oil will round out the main course, while strawberries and blueberries layered in wine glasses and topped with swirls of honey-scented whipped cream will make an easy finale.

Orzo with peas, mint and Parmesan

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

11/4 cups orzo (8 ounces)

2½ cups reduced sodium chicken stock

11/4 cups fresh or frozen green peas (defrosted)

½ cup thinly sliced green onions including 2 inches of the green stems

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons extra for garnish

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint plus several sprigs for garnish

1½ to 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Heat the butter in a heavy, medium saucepan (with a lid) set over medium heat. When hot, add orzo and cook, stirring, 1 minute to coat the pasta with butter. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat, cover and cook at a simmer until almost all liquid has been absorbed, 6 to 8 minutes.

If using fresh peas, stir them into the orzo after it has cooked about 6 minutes, and cook 3 minutes. Then add green onions and cook 1 to 2 minutes more.

If using frozen peas, stir them in along with the green onions and cook them together just to warm through, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the cheese and mint. Then season mixture with salt. (You will probably need to add 1½ to 2 teaspoons salt.)

Mound the orzo in a serving bowl and garish the center with a few mint springs and sprinkle with extra Parmesan. Serves 4.

Note: Orzo is frequently added to soups or used on its own as a side dish. You can find it in the pasta section of supermarkets.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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