Bright, flavorful, and easy to make, this Orzo Pesto Salad is a delicious and quick entree or side. Made with fresh and simple ingredients and lots of flavor, this versatile dish will be enjoyed by everyone.
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Hey Internet, I just love orzo, so I decided to create another recipe using it. A couple weeks ago I shared a vegan orzo soup that had a lemon chicken type of flavor profile and it was *awesome*.
Orzo is so fun. It’s definitely pasta, but it has a rice vibe and I love it.
I’m no stranger to fun salads. There’s pasta salads like this one, like my sheet pan roasted vegetable pasta (like a warm pasta salad), or somewhat similar pasta salad with hummus and roasted vegetables. For cold pasta salads I have a standard yet amazing vegan macaroni salad and a fun vegan ranch pasta salad. We also have amazing salad-salads like vegan goat cheese salad, vegan avocado salad, kale caesar salad, and more.
Why This Recipe Works
Today’s recipe is extra awesome because it really only requires a handful of ingredients. Orzo, obviously, and any veggies you like. I decided to use fresh sweet corn and grape tomatoes.
You can use any vegetables that you like. This is an any-time-of-year kind of salad, and it’s great warm or chilled.
I love serving it warm right after making it, and enjoying the cold leftovers for my work lunches.
If you’re making your own pesto, which I did, you probably already have most of the ingredients on hand.
Making your own pesto is super easy. Sometimes basil can brown after blending. The trick is to blanch it in boiling water for 30 seconds and then stop the cooking process by throwing it in an ice water bath. It sounds complex but it’s REALLY easy, I promise.
Finally, this recipe is super duper customizable so I really hope you enjoy it whether you follow my recipe exactly or make it your own. I’ll be suggesting some customization ideas in the sections to follow.
Ingredients and Notes
- Orzo: This recipe uses orzo, but you can really use any pasta you like! You can use gluten-free pasta if you need to. I tend to like the brown rice / quinoa pasta varieties but use what you like.
- Grape or cherry tomatoes: Tomatoes are fantastic in this, but I wouldn’t use larger tomatoes since they’re usually quite watery and might make the dish soggy. Grape or cherry tomatoes are nice and sweet. You could also substitute chopped sundried tomatoes, sliced olives, or anything else you like.
- Fresh sweet corn: I love fresh sweet corn cut straight off the cob in this recipe. I cooked mine in a grill pan first, but you could cook yours: on a real grill, over the open flame of your gas stove, in a pot of boiling water, in a steamer pot, or even in the microwave. However you like it! You could alternatively use thawed frozen corn, but I wouldn’t use canned corn since it can be pretty soft.
- Any other veggies or whatever else you want! You could use fresh, roasted, steamed, or air-fried vegetables in this. If you’re looking to add a protein to this, I’d recommend crispy tofu, smoked tofu, baked tofu, etc. or your favorite vegan protein.
For the pesto:
- Basil: I used fresh basil because it’s the foundation of most pestos and it’s delicious--one of my favorite herbs. But use what you have access to and what you like. You could use another herb like cilantro or you could use a mixture of those and some baby spinach or whatever else you like.
- Raw sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds are the cheapest option and they’re also great for people who can’t have nuts due to an allergy. You could also use cashews (I even have a vegan cashew pesto recipe), blanched almonds (with no skins), or even pine nuts if you want to go the traditional route.
- Olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is the foundation of a good pesto along with basil, but I recognize that many people don’t like to cook or eat with oil. I try to minimize it myself (though I made a decision a little while back not to exclude it from my blog since the majority of my readers expressed a preference), but sometimes I do cook with it. If you would like to make this recipe oil-free, you can use any of the following: ripe avocado, tahini, broth, non-dairy milk, water, or a mixture of any of those. Try my vegan avocado pesto for a delicious oil-free option.
- Nutritional yeast: This is a great substitute for the dairy cheese most pestos use. Nutritional yeast is slightly nutty, very cheesy, and good for you. If you don’t like nutritional yeast, you could use store-bought vegan parmesan, or substitute hemp hearts and add an extra ¼ - ½ teaspoon salt.
- Fresh lemon juice: Fresh squeezed lemon juice is much more flavorful than bottled. I used to think that was a bunch of hot air, but it’s really true. After I tried fresh lemon juice 2 years ago, I haven’t gone back to bottled. It’s worth the extra expense and effort in my opinion, but of course you can use what you prefer.
- Sea salt: Season to your tastes with sea salt or your favorite salt. I’d use only half a teaspoon of salt if using table salt, though, since it’s “saltier” than sea salt. (It’s actually just that the grains are finer so more fits in a teaspoon which causes it to taste saltier.)
- Hot water if needed: If your pesto won’t blend or you like it “saucier” you can use a splash of hot water (or some of your pasta cooking water for that starchiness that will help the sauce be more cohesive) if needed. I didn’t need this, but I thought I’d mention it in case someone did.
How to Make Orzo Pesto Salad Step By Step
- Start by cooking your orzo according to package directions. Drain when cooked through.
- While the orzo cooks, you can prep the rest of the ingredients.
- Blanch the basil: This is an extra step, but it really preserves the color and flavor of the orzo. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. While it comes to a boil, set up a bowl of cold water with a few ice cubes in it. I prefer to use filtered water for this. When the pot has come to a boil, add the basil to it and lightly submerge the leaves with the help of a cooking spoon. After 30 seconds, Remove the basil with a spider strainer, slotted spoon, or tongs and place in the bowl of ice water. Gently stir to cool the basil and stop the cooking process. When the basil has cooled, you can remove it from the bowl, squeeze out the excess water, and place it directly in your food processor. I like to pull the clumped leaves apart a little bit to help everything blend smoother.
- Make the pesto: In a food processor (blender is fine, but the food processor leaves it a bit more textural which I like), combine the blanched basil (squeezed of its excess water), raw sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt. Blend until combined and taste. Adjust flavors if needed and re-blend. If you prefer it saucier, add hot water or some of the pasta cooking water, about 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse to check the consistency. Once you’re pleased, set aside until ready to use. You can also pack it into a jar and refrigerate until ready to use.
- You can also cook up your corn at this time. I like to cook mine either in a grill pan or over the gas flame on my stove. You can also just boil, steam, or microwave your corn if you prefer. To cut it off the cob, I put a smaller bowl upside down in a larger bowl. Stand the corn on top of the smaller bowl and cut the corn off the cob. That way, it stays inside the bowl and doesn’t fly everywhere. Then you just remove the smaller bowl and there’s your corn.
- Once the orzo is cooked and drained, toss it immediately with the pesto. Fold in the corn and tomatoes with some extra basil leaves and serve immediately or chill. Enjoy!
- Refrigerate leftover orzo pesto salad in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Frequently Asked Questions
Absolutely! Check if it’s vegan, as often store-bought pestos contain dairy. But yeah, any pesto--even like a sundried tomato one--will work.
Serve orzo pesto salad warm or chilled--it tastes great both ways. I would avoid reheating it, though, as the tomatoes will start to cook and soften--unless you want them to! I like to serve mine alongside a protein like crispy tofu. This dish is great as a side or an entree. And perfect to take on a picnic or to a potluck or BBQ.
This dish lasts as long as most pasta salads, 4-5 days when covered in the refrigerator. If you’re using gluten-free pastas, sometimes those don’t hold up as well in the refrigerator. When making a pasta dish gluten-free, I like to use the brown rice and quinoa blend pastas as I feel their texture holds up better.
Pro Tips for Success
- If you’re making your own pesto, I highly recommend blanching the basil leaves for 30 seconds in boiling water, then submerging them in ice water until cooled, then ringing out the excess water before blending. It makes the color and flavor last longer in my opinion.
- If you prefer to buy your pesto at the store, just be careful to read the nutrition label and ingredients section, as sometimes they contain dairy.
- Drain the pasta well before mixing with pesto so it doesn’t become watery.
- Similarly, I wouldn’t use larger tomatoes as opposed to grape or cherry tomatoes. The larger ones have a lot of extra water which may affect the dish negatively.
- Experiment with different veggies like raw bell peppers, green onions, julienne carrots or roasted veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, or squash.
- Add a protein like crispy tofu, baked tofu, smoked tofu -- or soy curls, seitan, or store-bought vegan protein options.
More Recipes Like This
- Vegan Ranch Pasta Salad
- Vegan Macaroni Salad
- Avocado Pesto Pasta
- Vegan Chicken Salad
- Vegan Pasta Primavera
- Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
- Vegan Creamy Pasta
- Vegan Cashew Pesto
- Saucy Vegan Tahini Pasta
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