Need a healthy and colorful side dish that makes enough to feed a crowd or have plenty of leftovers for the week? This easy Mediterranean orzo salad does the trick and its served with a tangy red wine vinaigrette that brightens the dish and keeps it light.
Orzo: it may look like grains of rice but it’s actually pasta. Because the noodles are so small, they instantly soak up flavor and become tender when mixed with other ingredients. For Mediterranean flavors, I use a combination of sweet, juicy tomatoes and crunchy vegetables like cucumber and bell pepper.
Briny olives and marinated artichokes add missing elements: tangy and salty. Fresh herbs and feta cheese complete this perfect side dish. However, homemade dressing is a must. I make an emulsified vinaigrette using red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil to complement the ingredients and make a bold flavor impact.
What is orzo?
Orzo, which is Italian for barley, is a type of short pasta. However, it has the appearance of uncooked long-grain rice. It’s typically made from white flour or semolina but healthier whole wheat versions are available. A quarter cup (2 ounces) of dry orzo delivers around 200 calories, 7 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 41 grams of carbohydrates [source].
The tiny orzo noodles have a very neutral flavor and cook in under 10 minutes. They are commonly used in pasta salads or soups. It would be a tasty swap in a hearty minestrone. And the small size provides a lighter pasta experience.
Cook, then rinse the pasta
It’s best to cook this pasta slightly softer than al dente. Doing so keeps it tender and holds its shape without becoming mushy. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process by quickly cooling down the temperature. Rinsing will also wash away any excess starch that sticks to the surface which can soak up moisture and lead to a mushy texture.
Add colorful and flavorful mix-ins
Additional ingredients should complement and not overwhelm the size of the orzo noodles. I look for a variety of colors, textures, and flavors.
- Sliced cherry tomatoes add a burst of sweetness.
- Thinly sliced English cucumbers have tender skin and provide a refreshing crunch.
- Chopped red onions and bell pepper add a slightly sulfurous and earthy bite.
- I also use roasted red bell pepper strips for a smoky taste.
- Marinated artichokes and kalamata olives provide depth from their savory pickled juices.
- Fresh herbs like parsley and basil add enticing herbaceous notes.
- Tangy and creamy crumbled feta cheese add a little fat and richness.
Make a tangy dressing
To brighten the flavor of the pasta salad, I make a quick vinaigrette. Red wine vinegar and freshly squeezed lemon juice create an acidic, bold base. Minced garlic, dried oregano, salt, and pepper season the dressing. I also add Dijon mustard for pungency.
To round out the sharp notes, slowly drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil, and don’t stop whisking! This takes a little coordination, but it’s important to break up the fat into small droplets. Otherwise, the dressing will not properly thicken and separate. I make plenty of dressing because I like to have enough to toss and to serve on the side.
Add protein for a heartier dish
Mustard makes for a better-emulsified dressing
Mustard not only adds flavor, but it also contains complex polysaccharides that aid in emulsification. It’s not a permanent fix, but it keeps the dressing creamy (uniformly suspended) for longer. This trick is ideal when enjoying the dressing the same day. Whisk in mustard with the vinegar to disperse the natural emulsifying agents so it’s more effective when adding the oil.
Pin this recipe to save for laterPin This
Mediterranean Orzo Salad
Mediterranean Orzo Salad
- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, for seasoning pasta water
- 1 pound orzo
- 1 cup English cucumbers, sliced ⅛-inch thick and then quartered
- 1 cup green bell pepper, ¼-inch dice
- 1 cup baby tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 cup marinated artichokes, roughly chopped
- ½ cup red onion, ⅛-inch dice
- ½ cup kalamata olives, sliced
- ½ cup roasted bell peppers, jarred, chopped into ½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced basil, plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled, plus more for garnish
Red Wine Vinaigrette (makes 1 ½ cup)
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 4 teaspoons dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
- 2 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano, plus extra for sprinkling
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Stir until dissolved. Add the orzo to the boiling water, stirring occasionally to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Reduce heat if the water starts to foam. Cook the pasta according to package directions, about 10 minutes or until slightly softer than al dente.
- Drain the pasta in a colander and rinse with cold water for about 1 minute, stirring until cooled down. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl.
- Add cucumbers, green bell pepper, tomatoes, artichokes, red onion, kalamata olives, roasted bell peppers, parsley, basil, and feta cheese to the large bowl. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together red wine vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, lemon zest, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, and oregano.
- Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, constantly whisking until an emulsified and lightly thickened dressing forms. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour half of the dressing over the orzo salad. Toss to combine. Taste and add more dressing as desired. Serve the remainder on the side.
- Garnish the salad with crumbled feta cheese, parsley, basil, salt, and pepper.
- Recipe Yield: 12 cups of orzo salad
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Storing: The salad can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Toss with more dressing before serving.
Want to save this recipe?
Create an account easily save your favorite content, so you never forget a recipe again.
Tried this recipe?
Tag @jessica_gavin on Instagram. I'd love to see how it turns out!