As much as I wax poetic about the alchemical value of using reserved pasta water to add starchy body and enhance the textural properties of sauces, there is something to be said for cooking pasta without using the basic “boil it in water” method. Frequently I develop recipes out of necessity or the desire to make use of something comestible in our possession that isn’t being consumed in a timely fashion, but this one was borne simply out of the spirit of invention. Not that this idea is original, I’m sure, but it was new to me and felt like a worthwhile experiment to pursue.
My daughter was in a week of Ancient Greece camp run by the former-teacher mother of a friend of mine, and I’d offered to bring lunch for the group, so she suggested I bring the meal for the final day. Did I want to bring something that everyone would eat, remaining faithful to the theme of Greek week? Well, of course I did, but the slight hiccup in this initiative was that they’d already had spanakopita, hummus with pita, crudités with tzatziki, and pizza that week, plus plenty of Greek-inspired snacks, and the family hosting the camp were vegetarian. Having been to Greece and sampled the cuisine myself, I suspected that the girls’ palates might be averse to some of the menu options under consideration, so it felt like a challenge to produce something that would be nutritious, vegetarian, at least semi-Greek, and actually enjoyable for the audience to whom it would be offered.
I finally settled on two main options, one of which was a batch of my dad’s famous lentil du puy, cooked with carrots and celery and bay leaves, which I knew my daughter would eat. I also had the idea to make a pasta and cheese dish, opting for halloumi over feta because I happened to have a block of that delightfully squeaky, salty stuff already in the freezer. Also on hand was a quart container of tomato soup that hadn’t found its way into a meal yet, so it seemed like a good idea to try using it in place of water to cook the pasta. That way, I theorized, it would serve to hydrate and infuse the noodles with flavor while retaining that precious wheat starch released during the cooking process, with the result being a pasta cooked in its own sauce. Orzo seemed like a good choice, as it cooks quickly enough that the soup wouldn’t reduce too much before delivering that desired al dente density, and the decidedly Mediterranean association of that particular pasta shape clinched the decision. The results of this experiment proved successful, and whenever a recipe that calls for fewer than five ingredients turns out well, it always feels like another leaf added to that laurel wreath we food-providers wear.
Tomato Soup Orzotto
(serves 4-6 depending on accompaniments)
1/2 lb. dried orzo
~4 cups tomato soup
salt and pepper
Add two cups of soup to a saucepan over medium heat. Once it’s about to boil, add the orzo and cook, stirring constantly as you would a risotto and adding more soup until orzo is al dente and the sauce is of a, well, saucy consistency. Constant stirring is important to prevent pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This can be served in any way you choose, but some halloumi sliced into pieces a half-inch thick and fried in a dry, nonstick pan ’til brown on both sides is a good way to go. If your people won’t go the halloumi route (I’m the only one in this house who’s a fan), some little balls of mozzarella di bufala stirred into the mix works well as an alternative. And if you’re not a vegetarian, a nice meatball never hurt anyone. (Please don’t say that to your children, however, unless you want them to consider it a challenge they can’t help but accept.)