Saturday, September 29, 2012

Creamy Orzo with Veggies

My sister-in-law Julie recommended this recipe (original is here) and it's become a family favorite - we've had it once a week for the past month. I generally stick to low-fat recipes and go for tomato-based sauces rather than cream or cheese-based sauces. But sometime a nice creamy dish just totally hits the spot. And my kids LOVE this. The said it was WAY better than macaroni and cheese (and way better for them!).

It only takes me about 1/2 hour to make this whole recipe from beginning to end (would take longer to prep if I used chicken as suggested in the original recipe but I don't bother with the chicken - it's delicious as a vegetarian meal and there's protein in the cheese).

I use whatever veggies I've got on hand (and I added in more quantities of veggies to the recipe - way better with more veggies I think). It's great with broccoli or fresh green beans instead of the asparagus, with grape tomatoes cut in half instead of the red peppers (but don't add those until the very end or they'll get all mushy), and the mushrooms can be left out if you don't have them on hand (my kids pick them out and give them to me and my husband - we love them). I've made a few other changes to the recipe as noted below.


Creamy Orzo with Mushrooms, Asparagus and Red Pepper

1 lb. orzo pasta
1 cup reserved pasta water or chicken broth (see below)
1-2 tsps olive oil (or some olive oil spray)
2 medium chicken breasts (1-1.5 lbs.), cut into chunks (optional)
8 ounces white button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 - 1 sweet onion, diced
1-2 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/2" pieces (or
1 lb. asparagus, cut into 1" pieces
1/2 - 1 teaspoon dried thyme (depends on how much you like thyme - I just like 1/2 tsp)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced (or 1-2 tsp crushed/diced garlic from a jar)
8 ounces cream cheese, softened (I always use 1/3 less fat cream cheese or Neufchatel)
1/2 teaspoon salt (add more to taste once everything's assembled)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley (I usually skip the parsley)
juice of 1-2 lemons (don't skip this! It's what makes it so good.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook according to package directions until tender (but not overdone!). When the orzo is ready, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and then drain the orzo and set aside. (I don't use the pasta water, I use chicken broth instead - makes it tastier I think. Plus I can never remember to save the pasta water...)

While the orzo cooks, in a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat or just spray the pan with a good coating of olive oil spray. Put garlic and onion in the pan and saute a little. If you're using chicken, season the chicken with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the hot oil and brown on all sides. When nicely browned (but not quite all the way cooked through), add the peppers, mushrooms, asparagus and thyme. If you're doing it w/o chicken as I usually do, put the veggies in the skillet and saute a bit then add a tablespoon of water and cover to let veggies steam and soften - 5-10 minutes depending on the hardness of the veggies used. Take lid off and allow veggies to brown a bit (spray with a little more olive oil if you like). Stir until most of the liquid has evaporated. Veggies shouldn't be totally done since they'll cook a bit more once you add in the cheeses.

While the veggies cook, cut cream cheese into chunks (like 6-8 chunks from one cube). When veggies are mostly done, add the cream cheese and the grated parmesan and stir so that the cream cheese melts and coats the chicken and vegetables (can cover and leave on low to let it melt). Add the reserved pasta water or chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Stir. Add the orzo, lemon juice and fresh parsley. Stir to combine and heat through. Garnish with additional Parmesan if you wish and have some lemon slices available to squeeze over the top of individual portions if you wish.

Serves 6-8. Best to serve in a bowl since it can be pretty creamy.

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