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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

There’s a pesto miracle waiting in your freezer

Ingredients for a one-pan zucchini-pesto orzo on July 10, 2023. It’s important not to move the zucchini and onions around in the early stage of cooking, allowing them to brown and impart flavor to the final product.

By Melissa Clark

Sometimes a kitchen needs a last-minute miracle, and mine is always frozen pesto. At a moment’s notice, I can stir a spoonful of herby, garlicky zip into any dish that needs it, lifting it to a whole new level.

In a perfect pesto world, that frozen sauce is homemade — a mix of tiny-leafed Genovese basil, Italian pine nuts and good olive oil that you’ve pounded by hand with a mortar and pestle.

In my world, though, I usually reach for the food processor. I whirl regular floppy-leafed basil with olive oil and sliced almonds (instead of pricier pine nuts) until I get a purée thick enough to spoon into an ice cube tray for fast access when dinner is nigh. (And if your frozen stash runs out, good store-bought pesto is a reliably herby Plan B.)

Pesto is typically destined for a plate of al dente pasta, but it actually works wonderfully as an ingredient, adding color and garlicky verve to soups, stews, or, in this case, a one-pan orzo dish loaded with summer zucchini and onions.

The key to bringing out the most flavor in a one-pan dish is to cook it in stages. First, I sauté zucchini and onions, letting them sear until they’re darkly golden. Try not to move the vegetables too much as they cook, as that can impede browning. The darker they get, the more flavor they’ll impart to the dish, with the bronzed bits left stuck to the bottom of the pan forming the foundation of the sauce.

Then, instead of cooking the orzo in water, I use broth, which infuses the pasta with flavor as the liquid reduces to a silky sauce, spiked with lemon zest for brightness.

The pesto doesn’t make its appearance until late in the game, to preserve its freshness. Heating it too long would tame the pungent, garlicky bite and dull the basil’s verdant sharpness. Start with a half cup, which is just enough to give the orzo a gentle pesto character. Pesto stans might want to drizzle in a little more, but taste as you go.

At the very end, I stir in a caprese-like mix of marinated mozzarella, juicy, sweet cherry tomatoes and fresh mint. The cheese softens but doesn’t quite melt, forming milky pockets to complement the pungent pesto. That perfect balance, created so effortlessly by pesto and cheese, is the real miracle on your plate.

One-pan zucchini-pesto orzo

Keeping pesto on hand (store-bought or homemade and frozen) is one of the greatest kitchen timesavers, since stirring just a spoonful into a dish can add so much herby, garlicky flavor. Here, pesto builds on a pan of orzo loaded with zucchini and onions that have been sautéed together until golden brown. Cooking the orzo in vegetable or chicken stock bolsters the pasta’s flavor as the broth reduces into a silky sauce. Then, pesto is added at the very end to preserve its brightness. Finally, just before serving, a caprese-like mix of marinated mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and fresh mint is stirred into the pan. Filled with vegetables and milky cheese, this dish is especially satisfying and very easy to make.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 25 minutes


2 medium zucchini (about 6 ounces each), diced (about 2 1/2 cups)

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste, more as needed

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt, more to taste

1 3/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 cup orzo

1 lemon, zested and halved

1 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes

5 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into cubes (1 cup)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan (3 ounces), more for serving

1/4 cup finely chopped mint, more for serving

1/2 cup pesto, store-bought or homemade, more to taste


1. In a large nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, combine the zucchini and onion with olive oil, the red-pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook the mixture, stirring once or twice, until the zucchini and onion turn golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Don’t stir too often, as it can impede browning.

2. Stir in stock and bring to a simmer. Stir in orzo, lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until orzo is nearly cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed, 10 to 14 minutes, stirring once or twice.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, toss together the tomatoes, mozzarella, a pinch of salt, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a drizzle of olive oil, and let marinate while the orzo cooks.

4. Once the orzo is ready, stir in juice of 1/2 lemon, Parmesan, mint and pesto. Cover the pan, and cook for 1 minute, to finish cooking. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice or pesto, if needed. To serve, top with tomato-mozzarella mixture and sprinkle with more cheese and mint.

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