Summer Orzo Salad

In this solo cooking adventure, Kate makes a tasty, filling salad fit for a summer barbecue.

Top left – olives and feta are added to the salad.. Bottom left – the salad with all ingredients combined. Right – orzo salad (and cabbage salad above it) sitting on the table.

Every year growing up in Portland, OR, I knew it was finally summer when suddenly I would find myself sitting in the back yard having dinner with my family as the sun gently began to set, eating my mom’s teriyaki chicken from the grill with a heaping scoop of Orzo salad. Honestly, the teriyaki chicken was never my favorite, but I could eat the orzo salad every day until September and never get sick of it. And I’m not the only one. Out of five eaters with different and often finicky tastes, it was one thing that we could all agree on. Everyone loved Mom’s summer orzo salad. The fact that my mom, a huge foodie who considers herself a bit of a gourmet, still makes this very basic dish today, 20 something years later, says it all. It’s a classic. Why? It’s just. So. Good.

It’s nothing fancy. Some orzo pasta (my mom likes to use the fancy Italian brand Rustichella d’Abruzzo–and it makes a big difference although it is hard to find), the prettiest bell peppers available, a hit of fresh parsley, and some nice quality olives and feta mixed in at the end; yet this is a dish where the whole is greater than its parts. Something if not quite magical, than firmly wonderful happens when the mellow chewyness of the pasta contrasts the the sweet crunch of the peppers against the creamy salty cheese and the briny olives, so you are compelled to have another bite, just to experience that flavorful and textural medly once again.

Top left – peppers and parsley. Top right – Kalamata olives. Bottom left – making the dressing. Bottom right – coating the salad with the dressing.

Whenever I make it this little salad, for whatever audience, it is, without fail, a hit. I made it for a barbecue that I had last year as a vegetarian option to round out the skirt steak and fish tacos my friend Jeremy cooked up on the grill. Both vegetarians and carnivores alike went back for seconds. I got compliments. I love compliments.

Although it’s not quite summer yet, BF and I were invited to a sort of BBQ last weekend and I wanted to bring something that everyone would like. I plopped it down on the table along with another, slightly healthier, very vegan, much hipper salad. Guess which one had everyone oohing and ahhing?

When it came time to leave, BF asked if we could take the leftovers home. There was a moment’s pause. “Of course not” I admonished, playing the classy guest, “we’ll leave that for our hosts!” Secretly I wished we could pack up the leftovers and have it for lunch the next day. The salad is quite simple, but it does involve some prep like chopping all the veggies herb and olives, cooking the orzo, and making the vinaigrette. I wished I had made extra. Oh well, we’ve got all summer.

Mom’s Orzo Pasta Salad.

Mom’s Orzo Pasta Salad
(Adapted from Fine Cooking Magazine)

I have made my own modifications to the recipe over the years, tweaking the amount of peppers and cheese and other variables. The best thing about this salad is that it can be made a day ahead and actually improves with time. Fine Cooking says to serve it warm or at room temp, but not cold. Whatever. I’ve served it all three ways and it always rocks.

Time: 1 hour

Servings: 6-8

Salad Ingredients

  • ¾ lb orzo
  • 1 each – red, orange, and yellow peppers
  • 1 small or ½ large red onion
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • 10 oz fresh feta
  • Roughly chopped Kalamata Olives to taste (the amount I use varies depending on my mood– at least 40 olives)

Dressing Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp tarragon or champagne vinegar
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • Tabasco sauce, to taste
  • ½ cup olive oil


  1. Cook orzo in plenty of salted water. Drain thoroughly. Put pasta in large mixing bowl. Add peppers, onion, parsley and combine with orzo.
  2. Make the dressing, using all the dressing ingredients. Taste. Adjust seasoning, then toss to coat. Add cheese and olives.

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