A few nights ago, D and I engaged in our very own culinary contest of wits, skillz, and gluten: an Iron Chef-like battle of the sexes in which only one dish would reign supreme. The goal: to create a simple, healthy pasta dish fit for lunch and/or dinner throughout the coming week. Well, as competitive as we both are, when it ends in a delightful meal we’re all winners in my book.
One of these days I’ll attempt pasta from scratch, but in the meantime I’m satisfied with this quick and easy orzo salad which can be served effortlessly at room temperature in the summer, or warmed through in the winter. It’s rich in flavor, yet surprisingly light – the cooked fennel providing a mild, almost sweet anise flavor against the heat of the chiles and the refreshing cool of the mint. At one point in the evening, some particularly potent serrano chiles unleashed an attack on my face causing temporary blindness and extreme frustration, and against which I mounted a failed campaign resulting in a cooking time-out. During this time I reflected on my fatal mistakes while I did all but soak my eyeballs in milk (note to self: FOR PETE’S SAKE START WEARING GLOVES WHEN COOKING WITH HOT PEPPERS). Nevertheless, it’s a dish I’ll make again and was the perfect counterpoint to D’s creation: sweet and creamy Orecchiette with Avocado and Cherry Tomatoes.
Orzo with Fennel, Serrano Chiles, and Mint
Makes 4 servings
- 1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil (while I know it may seem redundant and an unnecessary cost, using the best olive oil you can get your hands on will vastly improve the flavor of such a simple dish – my rule of thumb is the fewer the number of ingredients, the higher quality olive oil I’ll use)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped (Trader Joe’s is currently selling these for $1.99 for two which is a freaking steal)
- salt and pepper
- 3 serrano chiles, cored, seeded, and sliced into thin rounds (I used 4 and while I like my food spicy, I regret the decision – stick with 3 or fewer or risk overpowering your dish)
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
- Poppy seeds, for garnish (these may seem unnecessary but they really do add a nice nuttiness to the dish, so don’t skip ‘em!)
- In a large saute pan, add 2 tbsp. of the oil over medium heat.
- Add the garlic and fennel and season with salt and pepper.
- Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until fennel is softened.
- Add the serrano chiles and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until fennel is golden. Then turn off the heat.
- Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Once boiling, add the orzo and cook for 7 to 9 minutes, stirring occasionally until tender, but still firm to bite.
- Drain the pasta and transfer to a large serving bowl.
- Add the fennel mixture and mint to the bowl with orzo and toss to combine with the remaining 2 tbsp. of oil.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Sprinkle with poppy seeds and serve.