Eggplant & tomato orzo

I couldn’t have been happier to see pesto as the main feature in the latest issue of Saveur Magazine. I am a huge fan of pesto, and not just the specific basil-pine nut sauce. Pesto is a concept, a blend of greens, nuts, aromatics and liquid that can be taken a hundred different directions. Saveur offered more than a dozen different pesto recipes in this edition, and I tweaked the magazine’s walnut pesto to make this orzo salad with fresh veggies.

I visited a farmer’s market last weekend here in Houston and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. It was much bigger than the market we enjoyed (and still love) in Takoma Park, and there was a host of produce available. I picked up some eggplant and tomatoes that I decided to roast for this cold pasta.

It may seem counter-intuitive to crank up your oven on a blistering hot day such as the ones we have been getting in Texas lately. But I would much rather close the oven door and let something cook than stand over a hot stove. Plus I love the way flavors concentrate when you roast vegetables. I think it’s a particularly good way to cook eggplant because of how much oil the vegetable can take in if you saute or fry it instead. The little nuggets that come out of the oven are ready to use in any dish and have some of the satisfying crunch that deep frying offers.

This recipe can seem time consuming if you do it all at once. But I generally roast the tomatoes and eggplant on a slow day, and have them ready to go into whatever dish I decide to make later in the week. You can store them in the refrigerator and they should hold up for that long. Drizzle some olive oil on the tomatoes if you go this route.

Eggplant and tomato orzo

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut 4 medium tomatoes in quarters. Dice eggplant into 1″ cubes. I had about 4 cups of eggplant, but you can really just eyeball how much you want to put in (or use what’s available). Lay the tomatoes and eggplants in single layers on separate baking sheets that are lined with parchment paper. It’s okay if the pieces are touching since both of these vegetables will shrink as they lose liquid in the oven. Bake for 40 minutes, or until tomatoes have black rim and have completely softened and eggplant has a crunchy exterior.

2. Make the pesto. The only tweaks I made to the Saveur recipe found here were to use pecans instead of walnuts (since that’s what I had on hand) and to substitute the sundried tomatoes with the ones I baked in step one.

3. Boil about 1 cup of orzo for nine minutes until al dente or per packet instructions. Reserve about a cup of the starchy cooking water.

4. Now we assemble. In a large bowl, toss the orzo and pesto together. Check the salt and add more as needed. Use leftover pasta water to break up the sauce and coat the orzo. Then add eggplant and tomato to your liking as well as 1/2 cup of chopped green onions and the zest of one lemon. If I had reserved some of the nuts when I made the pesto, I would have chopped and added them as well.

You can eat this warm, but I prefer to let the pasta cool. If the orzo starts to stick as it cools, just loosen it up with some lemon juice before serving.

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