Summer’s high heat days are the time for cold salads that are filling and satisfying, but easy to prepare and to eat. I haven’t reinvented any wheels with this recipe, just taken the classic combination of tomatoes, basil and mozzarella to create a refreshing, simple summer meal. Because when the ingredients are at the peak of freshness, simple is best. I return to this flavor combination often in the summer, from the classic sliced tomato salad to a fresh chicken salad or this riff on the idea Panzanella Bake. At my local farmers market, I get glorious basil, perfect tomatoes and even freshly made mozzarella, so the combination is a frequent guest in my kitchen. And I think this salad can be a meal on its own, or a wonderful side to grilled meats.
I love riced shaped orzo and it makes a wonderful pasta base for a salad because of its small size – perfect for scooping up big spoonfuls. Roasted garlic vinaigrette adds a deep, rich note to the simple salad, bringing in another lovely Italianate flavor, but mellowed by roasting. I think the little mozzarella “pearls” I find regularly in my grocery stores are fabulous for salads, but if you can’t find then, buy any small pieces, or even a full sized ball and dice or tear it up. I slice the cherry tomatoes in half to make the whole salad easier to eat, but if you happen to come across some very small tomatoes, go for it. The first time I made this, I happened to have some small tomatoes on the vine that needed using, so I roasted them and placed them on the top to look decorative. Turns out the added layer of slightly caramelized tomatoes is a real treat.=, sort of melting into the pasta. A little drizzle of thick balsamic glaze is a lovely touch – but I find that plain, unreduced balsamic adds to much vinegar tang, so if you don’t have a bottle of the glaze, skip it. This feeds a crowd, but will sit happily in the refrigerator (minus the roasted tomatoes and glaze) for a few days.
Orzo Caprese Pasta Salad with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette
- Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette
1 head of garlic
½ cup plus 1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon honey
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
- Orzo Salad
4 cups water
1 cup white wine
2 Tablespoons salt
2 cups orzo
8 ounces mozzarella “pearls” or bocconcini torn into small pieces
2 pints cherry tomatoes
1 large bunch fresh basil
1 stem of cherry tomatoes on the vine, or a handful of extra cherry tomatoes
Balsamic vinegar glaze (see above) for topping, optional
- For the Dressing:
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees..Cut the top off the whole head of garlic, exposing the cloves. Place the head on a sheet of aluminum foil and drizzle with the 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Roll the head around to coat in the oil, then wrap it up in the foil like a little hobo packet. Place top side up in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until the head is soft and the cloves are beginning to brown. Remove from the oven, unwrap and leave until cool enough to handle.
- Squeeze the garlic head over the carafe of a blender so the soft cloves come out like a paste. Add the vinegar, honey, lemon juice and mustard and a pinch of salt and generous grinds of pepper and blend until smooth. With the blender running, drizzle in the ½ cup of oil until the dressing is smooth and emulsified. The dressing can be made up to a day in advance.
- For the Salad:
- Bring the water, white wine and salt to a boil in a large pot, then add the orzo. Cook according to the package instructions until al dente – tender, but with a little bite, around 12 minutes. Drain through a colander then rinse with cold water until the water runs clear. Shake the colander well to drain off as much water as possible, then return to the pot, after rinsing it out with cool water. Separate the mozzarella pearls and pat them dry if needed, then add to the pasta. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and add to the pot. Stack up the half the basil leaves and roll them into a tight little cigar and thinly slice into ribbons. Finely chop the remaining basil into fine confetti. Add both to the pasta. Pour over half of the dressing and stir gently to combine. Add more dressing until the pasta is lightly coated. You may not wish to use it all. Save the remainder and add right before serving if you think it needs it. Taste the salad and add more salt to taste. Cover the salad and chill for at least four hours, but overnight is fine. Leftovers will keep for a few days.
- Before serving, lightly drizzle the tomato vine or the extra cherry tomatoes with olive oil and place on a foil line baking sheet. Roast at 425 degrees until the tomatoes are slightly charred and soft, about 20 minutes, then cool to room temperature. Place the roasted tomatoes on top of the salad (do not stir, just let them meld into the top of the dish). Drizzle with balsamic glaze if you like and serve.