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Mamma Mia

July 5, 2010

How last year at this time I was able to post an Ask the Profussor is a mystery to me.  You see, July 5 is my mother’s birthday.  And birthdays are a big deal for her.

Perhaps this has something to do with the proximity of hers to the 4th of July.  But we just celebrated her birthday last night with friends and family at Tanglewood, which is one of her favorite places on the planet.

I like packing up a picnic and eating on the lawn with some wine and maybe a beer or two if it’s particularly warm.  For me it doesn’t really matter who is playing.  For all I care it could be a canned recording of James Galway, and if it were a beautiful day, I would be perfectly happy.

Picnics can be trying.  Especially if the picnic is some kind of potluck.  Even more so if your family knows that you are into food and cooking.

And while I am not usually inclined to share my ragtag cooking projects, people did seem to enjoy what I brought to the event, so at the very least, for those whom I spent the day with who would like to make this for themselves, here are the secrets to my Greek-ish orzo pasta salad.

I think this dish works because it offers a contrast of textures, flavors and colors that all play well together: slippery, crunchy, soft, sweet, savory, bright and funky.  It’s orzo, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, pine nuts, lemon zest, chopped parsley, oregano, marjoram, olive oil, and black pepper.  Really a very classic combination.

The orzo water gets well salted.  And while the pasta is cooking, the feta gets diced and thrown into the bottom of a bowl.  The hot, drained orzo is mixed with the cheese, which melts a bit to help bind the dish together.  A generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil helps to keep it all lubricated, so the dish doesn’t turn into a solid mass of cheese.

Kalamata olives are rinsed, drained, pitted, and quartered.  They are not chopped.  This is a trick I learned from Chris Kimball in his technique for puttanesca.  Chopped olives are too small.  Quartered are just right.

Sun-dried tomatoes get cut into thin strips before being rehydrated with boiling water.  Really, I should save that water for polenta or something.  But yesterday I was in too much of a hurry.  Dumping this flavorful liquid down the drain is my shame to bear.

Lemons get washed, and short thin strips of zest are pulled off with a zester.  I’m not a stickler for making sure there is no white pith underneath.  But I am a stickler for doing the whole operation over the pasta bowl, so that any of the stray oil spraying from the lemon peel seasons the dish instead of seasoning the counter.

Fresh parsley is chopped fine.  If you have a good source of fresh oregano and marjoram I would use those too.  I just went for my dried stash from Penzey’s and it worked very nicely.  About 1 part marjoram to 5 parts Turkish oregano.

All that gets mixed together with additional salt, pepper and olive oil to taste.

On top should be, ideally, toasted pine nuts.  I was running out of time, so I just sprinkled some raw pine nuts on top, and I’m guessing nobody knew the difference.  But I did.

You know what else this works great with?  Toasted Israeli couscous.  Especially if you happen to have some leftover lamb.  Chicken wouldn’t be half bad either.  Part of cooking is understanding flavor combinations, and learning what things go together.

Like mom and apple pie.
Or, summer in Western Mass and Tanglewood.
Or, family birthdays and the famous chocolate cake with lemon icing.

That chocolate cake may be a family secret.  But maybe I can convince them to let me publish the recipe.

Today we celebrate my mom’s real birthday.  Happy birthday Mom.
I’d love you even if you weren’t my biggest fan.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 2:35 pm

    Tanglewood really is one of the places for a picnic. Our family goes to the Saturday rehearsals and sits under the big tree on the far side of the lawn. Next time you’re in Lenox, try Chocolate Springs and stop by Guido’s.

    I haven’t cooked with Orzo before, but for the flavor combination of this salad, I will give it a shot. Would chickpeas or cannellini work in it, for the sake of creating a vegetarian main dish? Maybe with grilled marinated tofu?

  2. Annie permalink
    July 6, 2010 8:39 am

    This was a really excellent dish and perfect for a summer picnic. Will definitely try it at home. Something about the lemon zest really put it over the top with simple complexity, and surprisingly not bitter. I had thought it over ambitious to prepare such a dish mere hours before we had to leave the house with a house full of kids, but the Profussor proved me wrong.

    Thanks for the recipe!

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