I’m not much of a 4th of July celebrator. I don’t love fireworks or watermelon – but don’t worry, I do fully recognize that this makes me a total weirdo. I do, however, like to get my picnic on as much as the next girl, and this seems to be the weekend for it! (Or for some of us, a weekend of hauling an unwieldy, heavy new table up several flights of winding stairs while jamming our fingers and muttering curses under our breath. But, followed by a picnic! As there was most definitely an edict issued from somewhere stating, “thou shalt picnic!”).
Rickety picnic baskets, red checkered blankets, pitchers of lemonade, potato salad, amusing ants elbowing their way through to get to your food, what’s not to like?! Especially if you throw in a frisbee, and a nice shade tree.
Except, I have to admit that usually my version of a picnic is much simpler than that. It generally just involves some pieces of bread and some pieces of cheese or perhaps ham or salami. Simple.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Going to the beach in Norway in the summers, we would pack open-faced cheese sandwiches wrapped in food-paper, a bag of boller, and a thermos of coffee, and we were set for the day. I was explaining this type of matpakke to Joel the other day.
“You take a piece of bread and put a slice of cheese on it, maybe a slice of ham, and you make a matpakke!” I explained.
Joel was unimpressed. ”That sounds like a sandwich to me.” ”No! Because you see, you wrap it up in paper.”…He still wasn’t buying it.
Anyways, maybe we can’t agree on what it means to pack bread and cheese with you on a picnic. But, we had no differences of opinion about this pasta salad and its merits as a picnic food (though it takes a Tupperware for transportation, rather than wrapping in paper, but I won’t hold that against it).
If done right, a pasta salad makes a perfect contribution to a picnic. They travel well, and can be shot through with a confetti burst of different vegetables and cheeses. They can be all things to all people. And, if you steer away from creamy dressings, you don’t have to fret about them wilting in the summer sun, which is something I, at least, am prone to worrying about on picnics. (Warm creamy or mayo-y dressings just get so oily and slimy when they’ve sat in the heat for too long, not to mention potentially dangerous. Nobody wants to poison their picnic-mates!)
I’m a huge sucker for pesto pasta salad. Throw in some cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, and olives and you have a winner every time. But, you know, sometimes you need a change of pace, even from pesto.
I’m still on a mixed herb kick, so I decided to try making a pasta salad by mixing little rain-drop shaped orzo with a mixed pistou of herbs. A bite of this salad is like burying your face in an herb garden and taking a deep, fragrant breath. Golden coins of zucchini and summer squash along with sticky-soft caramelized onions add sweetness while cubes of feta add a salty balance.
I searched for my standard pine nuts, only to discover we were out. So, I added some toasted pistachios instead for a little crunchiness sprinkled throughout the salad. You could also use toasted almonds or pecans, or pepitas. And, you wouldn’t need to stop there, you could add tomatoes, olives, artichokes, dried fruit, grilled chicken, pieces of sausage.
It takes a whir of the food processor, some sizzling in the frying pan, some enthusiastic tossing, then scoop it all into a big covered bowl, pack it in your basket and bring it along to enjoy at the park, the beach, the backyard, or wherever the weekend picnicking takes you.
Orzo pasta salad with mixed herbs (serves 8-10)
- 1 cup packed, flat leaf parsley
- 1 cup packed, cilantro
- 1 cup packed, fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill
- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound orzo
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 medium zucchinis, cut into quarter inch thick “coins”
- 2 yellow summer squash, cut the same way as the zucchini
- 1 large Vidalia onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 red chile peppers, seeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
- 8 ounces feta, cut into small cubes (or ricotta salata)
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a food processor (or with a mortar and pestle), pulse together the parsley, cilantro, mint, dill and garlic with the lemon juice until finely chopped. Then, add the olive oil in a drizzle while processing to make a smooth herb pistou. Stir in 1/2 tsp. of salt and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook until al dente (9-10 minutes). Drain, transfer to a large bowl and stir in 2 Tbs. olive oil. Then, add the pistou (the blended herbs) and toss well.
- In a large frying pan heat 1 Tbs. of olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sliced onion, give a stir and cook for about 3 minutes. Then, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until soft and browned, 10 or so more minutes. Stir in a little pinch of salt. Then, scrape the onions into the bowl with the orzo.
- Return the pan to the stove, add the remaining 1 Tbs. of olive oil, heat, and then fry the zucchini and summer squash in batches over medium-high heat until golden brown and soft. Fry the chiles along with the squash. Remove from the heat and season with a little salt and pepper.
- Toss the orzo with the onion, zucchini, and summer squash. Finally, stir in the pistachios and the ricotta salata or feta. Taste and adjust the seasonings if you wish.
- Serve warm, or cold.