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Rice and Orzo Summer Pilaf combines long-grain white rice with orzo, a rice-shaped pasta. Fresh vegetables add color and texture to the dish. Photo by Sue Doeden

Rice and Orzo Summer Pilaf an ideal side dish for grilled meats

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When my husband and I began dating (several decades ago), it didn't take me long to realize this skinny guy needed to eat. His meal of choice was meat and potatoes. Preferably roast beef with a mountain of mashed potatoes and plenty of gravy.

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First, it was my mom who made it her mission to put some weight on this scrawny guy. She went to work filling him up with her Hungarian and German dishes. Before he knew what was happening to him, he had added 40 pounds to his frame and had begun to enjoy a variety of foods on his plate other than meat and mashed potatoes. My mom was pleased and quite satisfied that she had accomplished her goal just before he became her son-in-law.

Not long after the skinny-to-just-right guy and I got married, I came upon a recipe for rice pilaf. We had invited friends over for dinner. I was hoping to make a side dish that would make a grilled chicken meal look impressive. By this time my husband was feeling quite comfortable in a world without potatoes every day.

Pilaf is a method of lightly sautéing raw grains in oil or butter, usually with onions or seasonings for added flavor. Hot liquid, often a stock, is then added. The pan is covered and the mixture is left to simmer until the liquid is absorbed.

That first rice pilaf I made was the star of our first dinner party. My husband, a very inexperienced griller, served chicken hot off the coals. It was golden with dark grill marks and looked quite beautiful, but the insides were still red and raw near the bones. Maybe that's why the entire bowl of rice pilaf disappeared in no time.

Since that first successful experience with rice pilaf, it's been one of my favorite sides to serve with grilled meats. Most times, I bake the pilaf, often sautéing the rice in butter and transferring it to a large casserole dish before baking. I take it out of the oven just before all the liquid is absorbed, stir in some finely chopped vegetables and then cover it and let it sit out to finish cooking. When company arrives, I reheat the rice pilaf in the microwave oven and place the pilaf-filled casserole dish right on the table. This procedure makes pilaf an easy make-ahead side dish.

I enjoy experimenting with different types of grains, sometimes mixing a couple different varieties. Barley makes a nice pilaf, too, but it requires a longer cooking time.

Rice and Orzo Summer Pilaf combines long-grain white rice with orzo, a rice-shaped pasta. This time of year, it provides a blank canvas for fresh-from-the-garden vegetables and is a dazzling, colorful complement to grilled meats.

Sautéing the rice and orzo in butter gives it a slightly toasted flavor and keeps the baked pilaf from sticking together. Have fun stirring in any of your favorite vegetables. Adding them right at the end of the baking time produces crisp-tender texture that balances the al dente rice and orzo. Since I have fresh herbs growing in my garden, I chopped up some basil and oregano to add to the pilaf. Dried herbs can be used in smaller amounts, usually one teaspoon of dried herbs to replace one tablespoon of fresh herbs. Dried herbs can be added to the pilaf during the sauté time.

Rice and Orzo Summer Pilaf will be a favorite at your next grill-dinner. Even your potato-loving guests will be happy and satisfied. Do be sure to get the meat cooked just right, though.

Rice and Orzo Summer Pilaf

1/2 cup butter

6 green onions, finely chopped

2 chubby cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup uncooked orzo

3/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice

3 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth, heated to boiling

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped carrots

1/3 cup finely chopped young zucchini or any summer squash

1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh spinach leaves

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves

1/3 cup crumbled feta

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

In a heavy, oven-safe 2-quart saucepan, melt butter. Add green onions and garlic and sauté until tender. Add uncooked orzo. Saute 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add uncooked rice and sauté another 2 minutes, continuing to stir. Carefully pour hot broth into the pot. Add salt and pepper and stir to mix.

Cover pot and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until rice and orzo are tender to the bite (al dente) and liquid has been absorbed.

Remove pot from oven. Add carrots, zucchini, spinach, basil and oregano. Allow to stand, covered, 10 minutes. Just before serving, add feta and pine nuts.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Tips from the cook

--As an alternative, use blue cheese and walnuts in place of feta and pine nuts.

--Long-grain basmati rice works well. Sometimes I use tri-color orzo for added color.

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