I must caution you that I’m going to get a little contemplative in this post. I originally created this dish to be served at a somber occasion a few months ago, the details for which I’m not going to go into, which may have put me in a thoughtful mood as I was making it. You’ve been given fair warning and forgive me.
I’m definitely not the first person to combine the flavors of mushrooms and asparagus, and I have to admit that I did not give the ingredients deep thought as I was purchasing them. In this case, I chose them for a combination of seasonality, hardiness, and mere whim. However, later on I began to consider that the ingredients are also emblematic of the phases of life.
The earthiness of mushrooms could not be more evocative of the proverbial dust from which we emerge, and to which we must later return. The asparagus, in season in the spring, brings to mind birth and rebirth. The additional green flavor of the kale and the brightness of the lemon speak to this as well. And orzo, made of flour and water, is essentially much like bread which is the life that runs between the bookends.
Like I said, I didn’t plan the combination for any symbolic purpose and I realize that I'm waxing poetic–and perhaps rather tritely at that–but it’s also possible that our thoughts and moods find expression in our cooking even when that’s not our conscious intent.
Even if you strip away any allegorical significance, I can’t help but reflect once again on the fact that food more than just about anything else is the thing that will most reliably brings us together–certainly a major contributing factor to my love of cooking. We congregate around food in happy moments and sad. Times of celebration almost invariably involve a feast. Food is likewise the thing that will pull us away from solitude, reflection, and mourning to gather once again with others around a table. After all, no matter what else is going on, we gotta eat.
From a very practical point of view, this combination of ingredients makes for a very stable dish that’s tasty at any temperature. It can sit happily on a buffet table for hours, whatever the occasion, patiently waiting to be eaten while life goes on.
Orzo Salad with Roasted Mushrooms and AsparagusMakes approximately 6 servings
Ingredients8 oz orzo
2 quarts of water (I sometimes split the water with a little stock)
8 oz crimini mushrooms, sliced (using a variety of mushrooms is also nice)
2 ½ cups (about 12 oz by weight) asparagus
4 garlic cloves, diced
1 lemon, juiced and zested (about ¼ cup juice)
2-3 cups chopped kale
½ cup shaved Parmesan cheese, or to taste
Optional Swaps and Add-Ins:Feta
1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
2. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Salt generously. Add the orzo and boil for 7-9 minutes or until al dente. Remove from heat and drain, reserving a little bit of the cooking liquid for later use. Run the orzo under cold water to stop cooking. Set aside.
3. Toss the mushrooms in a drizzle of olive oil with salt and pepper. Spread the mushrooms out on a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Place in the oven and roast for about 15 minutes minutes, or until the mushrooms have started to brown, have given up most of their water, and it has begun to evaporate.
4. Toss the asparagus with the diced garlic, salt, pepper and a light drizzle of olive oil. Once the mushrooms have begun to brown, flip them over, then add the asparagus and garlic mixture. Roast until the asparagus is tender, approximately another 10-12 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the oven.
5. While the mushrooms and asparagus are roasting, prepare the dressing. Mix together the lemon juice, zest, about ⅓ cup olive oil, and a generous pinch of each salt and pepper and whisk together until emulsified. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Notes: The ratio for a traditional vinaigrette is 1 part acid (usually vinegar, but here we’re using lemon juice) to 3 parts oil. I tend to like things on the tart side and I also find lemon juice to be generally milder than vinegar, so I’d recommend starting with a ratio of nearly equal parts, then adding in oil gradually until it suits your taste. After the all, the beauty of making things at home is that you can make it however you please.
Also, if there happens to be any liquid left in pan with the veggies once you’re done roasting them, go ahead and add that to the dressing as well as it will have lots of flavor.
6. Place the kale in a large bowl and add a little bit of the dressing, then begin to massage the kale well until the leaves turn dark green. Add in the orzo, a couple of tablespoons of the reserved pasta water, the roasted asparagus and cauliflower and combine. Begin to add the dressing gradually and toss until the salad is lightly coated. Sprinkle in the Parmesan cheese and gently toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper as needed.
The salad can be served warm or cold.
Here I served this orzo salad as an accompaniment to My Go-to Roast Chicken.