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Family favorite: Hearty pasta salad with veggies, jalapeno dressing

Schmeckfest Black Bean Orzo Salad includes Orzo pasta, black beans, red onion, grape tomatoes, assorted bell pappers, cilantro, avacado, lime and jalapeno.David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Schmeckfest Black Bean Orzo Salad.David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

This past July, more than 35 members of my dad's side of the family came from all corners of the country to Bethany Beach, Delaware, to celebrate what has come to be known as Schmeckfest, a name given in homage to our German-from-Russia heritage.

A Schmeckfest is a tasting festival, and our biennial family reunion certainly meets that standard. There are five siblings in my dad's family, representing the great states of North Dakota, New Jersey, Alaska, Colorado and Massachusetts. Over the course of the week, each sibling and their family are assigned a night to prepare dinner, and these dinners are highly anticipated after a long day on the beach.

Three generations of us, spanning ages from 22 months to 73 years, meet each evening to break bread, share stories and reconnect with one another. This time-honored tradition of family and food is cherished by all of us, feeding not just our hunger, but our hearts and souls, as well. My late grandmother, Florence (Goll) Anstett, was the original inspiration for our Schmeckfest gatherings, and she would love knowing that the tradition continues even many years after her passing.

Just like her, I always leave the gathering with a collection of new recipes to try at home, and this year was no exception. My Aunt Carol and cousin Anna have a knack for finding good recipes, especially for what I like to call big-batch salads, and I've already prepared this year's favorite twice in the three weeks since we've been home, renaming it Schmeckfest Pasta Salad.

This hearty pasta salad features a small, rice-like noodle called orzo, as well as black beans, bell peppers, avocado, onion and cherry tomatoes. The cilantro-jalapeno dressing really makes this salad sing, and brings a big punch of flavor and fragrance to the dish. You can make the dressing several days in advance, and it's versatile enough to serve with chicken, pork and fish as well.

Some jalapenos are spicier than others, so it's a good idea to taste the pepper first and get a feel for the level of heat. The first time I made this salad the jalapeno was fairly large, so I used just half of it, which resulted in a pretty spicy dressing.

However, the acid from the vinegar and lime juice worked to counter that heat, so that after tossing the salad ingredients with the dressing there was only the slightest touch of spice, if any at all. Since I like a bit of heat, I used an entire jalapeno the second time around which yielded a mild to medium kind of heat.

Black beans bring a healthy dose of protein to this salad and complement the orzo pasta in size, color and texture. This salad keeps well over several days and is an ideal dish for potlucks and family gatherings. A single batch will feed at least 12 to 16 guests, and this recipe can easily be doubled for larger groups.

The end of our Schmeckfest week always comes too soon, a sign that it is actually the perfect time to say farewell. Thankfully the memories, and the food, will live on until it's time to do it all again.

Schmeckfest Pasta Salad

Serves at least 12 to 16

Salad Ingredients:

1/2 pound orzo pasta, cooked according to instructions on package

1 each, red, yellow and green bell pepper, diced

¼ to ½ cup red onion, finely chopped

2 15-ounce cans of black beans, drained and rinsed well

1 to 2 avocados, chopped

2 cups cherry tomatoes, whole or cut in half

Dressing Ingredients:

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 ½ teaspoon tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 large garlic cloves

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ teaspoons cumin

1 to 2 jalapeno peppers (taste to determine level of heat), seeded and chopped (add some seeds for extra heat as desired)

1 bunch cilantro - use stems too, except for very bottom part

½ cup canola oil

Directions:

Cook the pasta according to the direction on the package, until al dente. Drain and immediately rinse under cold water; set aside until cool.

In a food processor, blend all of the dressing ingredients until fully combined. Taste and add salt and other ingredients as desired.

In a large bowl, add the cooked pasta, all other salad ingredients and the dressing; toss gently until well combined. Cover and refrigerate.

Remove salad from refrigerator to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

To double this recipe:

Double all salad and dressing ingredients, except the jalapeno (unless desired) and increase the oil to ⅔ cup.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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