In this recipe for Asparagus and Fennel Orzo I took full advantage of the amazing Spring crops and put the freshness front and center. I’ve had this idea percolating for a while with orzo, and thought the asparagus and sweet fennel would be a perfect foil to the savory and spicy flavors added to the orzo.
Asparagus is one vegetable you never forget when it comes to flavor. It’s essence lingers on and it is definitely one that is best eaten crisp and tender. The old school, grey, over cooked limp stalk is a distress call to the ’70s. Lightly steamed here with chopped fennel – bright, green and delicious.
Fennel is similar in look to celery, one of my favorites, but the fronds on the ends and smell, that of anise or licorice is a wonderful touch to a salad or as in this dish, steamed with the asparagus in the orzo as it slowly simmers.
I actually picked up a box of orzo at my neighborhood La Tiendita, a Latin market, thinking I would make a Mexican inspired soup or casserole. But when I saw the fresh vegetables I thought of a risotto type dish incorporating them as the star feature.
Orzo is Italian for “barley” and it also looks similar to big grains of rice or a melon seed, but it is a short-cut pasta. It’s easy to cook and when done al denté is perfect as a side dish.
You can find asparagus year round now, with the thinner stalks in Spring, the beginning of the season, and they get thicker as it moves on. I like to trim the stalks with a vegetable peeler halfway up the stalk on the thicker ones so they cook evenly. The larger ones tend to get a “woody” texture and are not palpable to me. They can be enjoyed in their green state, but can be found both white and purple, too. The whiter version is lighter in flavor and to my taste, the purple seems sweeter.
At seventeen I had the opportunity to train at a cooking school in Terra Linda, California with a red bearded Frenchman named Gerard. He taught me the basics from making a roux to soups and baking. When it came to asparagus, he taught me to hold it on both ends and with my thumbs gently apply pressure in an upward bend to make it arch and the tough end should break off. The remaining stalk is what is to be eaten. Voila!
I simply cooked the orzo in a Dutch oven. First I sautéed the orzo in some olive oil, crushed garlic and red pepper flakes. When the orzo turned a golden color, I added 1 quart of chicken stock and stirred. Turning the heat to low and stirring often, simmer for 10 minutes.
Next I took the chopped asparagus and fennel (white bottom bulb only, no green stalks) and added them in, stirring and covered the pot.
After 8 minutes I seasoned it with some kosher salt and add 2 tablespoons of butter to add a bit of richness. I served this with my Citrus Serrano Brined pork tenderloin.
Asparagus and Fennel Orzo
- 8 oz package of orzo
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 crushed chopped garlic cloves
- pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 qt chicken stock
- 2 cups asparagus chopped
- 2 cups fennel bulb chopped
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 lemon
- In a casserole pot add the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the crushed, chopped garlic and red pepper flakes for several minutes until they start to turn golden brown.
- Add the orzo and toss to coat. Allow to sauté for several minutes and add chicken stock. Lower the heat and stirring often, simmered for 10 minutes. Be sure to stir often.
- Trim up the asparagus spears as mentioned above by snapping off the tougher end and chopping the rest into bite size pieces. Next add the chopped asparagus and fennel (white bottom bulb only, no green stalks), stir to incorporate and cover the pot for 8 minutes.
- Season to taste with kosher salt and add the butter, stirring to melt and add a creaminess. Serve warm with a squeeze of lemon juice on top.