And now to focus on the humble side dish. It’s easy to spend a lot of thought and time on a showstopping main, or to build a meal around it. But a delicious side dish can make a meal special, and I even think it’s worth building the rest of the meal around a dish like this creamy orzo. Its great beside a simple roasted chicken or pork tenderloin, but you can serve it as the star with some sliced chicken or poached shrimp resting on top. The last time I served this, the oohs and ahhs were definitely about the orzo, and the biggest servings my dinners scooped on their plates came from the orzo pot. And bear in mind, a little prep work ahead and you can stir this up while that main is in the oven.
Orzo is little rice shaped pasta, so this dish has the look of risotto but without quite so much stirring. Mellow roasted garlic is the prime flavor agent here, with cheese adding a creamy note and pops of fresh spinach adding color and a nice vegetal hit. I’m pretty flexible about what cheese you use, just a nice melty, mild one that doesn’t outshine that roasted garlic. You can easily roast the garlic a day ahead so it’s all just ready to stir onto the orzo. Wrap that full head of garlic in foil and roast it until you squeeze the packet (with an oven mitt) and it is completely soft. You want the delicious, creamy insides of the garlic to slide out easily. I like to pick of any long stems from the spinach with my fingers so they don’t become stringy in the finished product. I then simple tear the spinach with my hands into smaller pieces but you can cut them with a knife on a cutting board. You just don’t want large unmanageable pieces of spinach. I use one package of baby spinach, which wilts quicker, and depending on the store these seem to be labelled anywhere from five to nine ounces. Any package will do.
Roasted Garlic and Spinach Orzo
1 large head of garlic
1 ¾ cups orzo pasta
4 cups of chicken broth
Salt and pepper
5 ounces baby spinach
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup grated fontina, asiago or swiss cheese, divided
¼ cup milk
Juice of half a lemon
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Leaving the papery skin on, slice the top from the head of garlic, exposing the cloves within. Place the head on a piece of foil and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. Wrap the garlic tightly in a little hobo packet and place in the oven (on the rack is fine, but you can put it on a baking sheet. Cook for 45 minutes or more, until the head is soft when you squeeze the foil. Peak in the top to make sure the garlic is golden brown. Remove from the oven and unwrap. When it is cool enough to handle, squeeze the garlic onto a small bowl and set aside. You can do this up to a day ahead and keep it covered in the fridge.
- Pour about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large deep skillet or pot. Heat over medium high heat, then add the orzo. Stir to coat in the oil, then cook, stirring, until the orzo begins to be golden brown and toasted. Not all of it needs to be browned, but let it all take on a little color. Pour in the chicken broth and a generous pinch of salt and stir to coat. Cook for about 10 – 25 minutes, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente and the liquid has been absorbed.
- While the orzo is cooking (and you are watching and stirring), pinch the stems off the spinach leaves, then tear or chop it all into relatively small pieces.
- When the liquid is absorbed, add the cream cheese, ½ cup grated cheese and milk to the pasta and cook, stirring until it is melted and smooth. Stir in the roasted garlic, smashing and smooth it to incorporate into the orzo. Drop in the torn spinach and stir until it is wilted and cooked. Add the lemon juice and stir. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve immediately topped with the remaining grated cheese.