Friday, August 27, 2010


First there was vacation, then recovering from vacation. Now I’m finally ready to get to work on this recipe backlog! Conveniently, cooler weather finally seems to be prevailing across most of the country, so there’s a chance you can actually make this tasty oven-baked dish without breaking a sweat. And you definitely should make this.

I love watching cooking shows (especially while I’m cooking, for some reason), but mostly as pleasant background noise rather than as a practical resource. Usually they’re either making something I already know how to cook or something I wouldn’t care enough to bother with, so I just admire the look of the food and the skill of the chef—not to mention the gorgeously clean kitchen, fancy tools, and shiny dishes. For the latter, Everyday Food is one of my favorite shows. The recipes aren’t always the most exciting (OK, they sometimes verge on stupidly simple) and the delivery is PBS at its blandest, but the chefs just make everything look so damn effortless. It’s got the ruthless efficiency of the Martha Stewart empire, but without the fussiness of the woman herself. It’s pared-down and streamlined and modern—the IKEA of food shows! Well, maybe less hip than IKEA. Anyway, I was watching one day and this recipe was featured. It had me at lemon, feta, and dill. A thought it looked pretty good, too, so I hopped on over to the Web site, bookmarked the recipe, and tried it at the earliest opportunity.

This recipe couldn’t be easier to throw together (heat liquids, mix everything in a pan, bake), but somehow I managed to overcook my orzo. With nearly 10 minutes of cooking time left to go, I peeked in the oven and was surprised to see all the liquid gone; when I tested it, the orzo was already beyond tender and approaching sticky. Instead of the juicy, creamy, risotto-like texture I’d been expecting, it was clumpy and a bit dry. I’m not sure why mine cooked so much faster than the recipe said it would, but I think it’s easily preventable—next time I’ll start checking it after 20 minutes and take it as soon as the orzo is tender (and the chicken is fully cooked, obviously). Because oh yes, there will be a next time. In spite of its texture issues (let’s face it: even cooked properly, orzo is one of my least favorite pasta shapes; it’s too reminiscent of rice, which I’ve always found dull), this was surprisingly unique, delightfully easy, light but satisfying, and deeply flavorful: savory from the broth and chicken, bright from the lemon and dill, and crikey, is there anything more delicious than melty, slightly toasted chunks of feta? Next time, I might add a little more feta. I sort of wanted to try adding something green, too, maybe spinach—there’s no denying this dish is seriously boring to look at—but A thought that sounded like a bad idea, and after all, a green salad on the side mitigates all the whiteness just as well.

I think I just talked myself into making it again ASAP.

Postscript: Making this for the second time, I noticed that the feta quantities seem contradictory; is there any way that just 4 ounces of crumbled feta can equal 2 cups? The first time around, I think I measured by weight, but this time I went by volume and ended up using an entire 8-ounce block of feta. It turned out even more delicious than before (and helped resolve the dryness/overcooking problem), so I'm going to go ahead and cautiously state that you should use 2 cups or 8 ounces.

Also, this time I couldn't get fresh dill and had to use dried instead, which worked better than I expected; if you're in this boat, use 4 generous teaspoons of dried dill to equal 1/4 cup of the fresh stuff.

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
¾ cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1¼ teaspoons coarse salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound orzo
2 cups crumbled feta cheese (4 ounces) (8 ounces, in my experience; see postscript above)
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a saucepan, bring broth, water, butter, salt, and pepper to a boil. Meanwhile, in a 3-quart baking dish, combine chicken, orzo, feta, dill, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Pour broth mixture over orzo mixture and stir once to incorporate.

3. Bake until orzo is tender and cooking liquid is creamy, 30–40 minutes. Sprinkle Parmesan on top and let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High

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