Greek Orzo Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Feta, and Kalamata Olives
January 2nd of 2010 is a day that I remember vividly. I was on a train hysterically bawling my eyes out, hard-core fighting with my ex-boyfriend via text messaging (the most popular way for young couples to fight these days!). The whole train was starring at me and I couldn’t pull myself together to quit sobbing, so they endured the sound track of my agonizing heartache for the entire ride from New York to Philly (I personally apologize to every passenger). It was a pretty rough start to what turned out to be a rather rough year, but this year started out completely different and so I’m feeling great about 2011!! I rang in this New Year eating and drinking with the most hospitable and hilarious Greek family that I have ever met…we could title the evening as: “my big fat Greek dinner!”
You see, I’ve been third wheeling it with Ariana and her boyfriend, Harry, the past couple of days, and so when they headed up to Boca Raton for Harry’s family dinner, naturally, I followed! He had given us the disclaimer on each family member before we went and tried to prepare us for what to expect that evening, but I had no idea just how much of a treat I was in for! The three of us show up around 4 O’Clock and it’s just us and his immediate family and grandmother, Yaya (pronounced, Yah-Yah). I recalled from his pep talk earlier that Yaya doesn’t speak English…or so he thought. Turns out that you can learn a lot about your family by watching them interact with non-family members (such as their ability to speak another language…fluently!). Yaya follows Ariana and I outside and strikes up a conversation speaking perfect English to everyone’s amazement. I guess Yaya has selective English, and only “no speak English good” when she wants to. Hey, with age comes wisdom.
Very quickly though people start trickling through the door, and I found myself standing up to greet someone new on 5 minute intervals. This continued for about an hour until the entire family and their plus one date (because everyone brought a friend) was gathered around the table outside. It got so crowded that Harry suggested making a “kid’s table” for anyone under the age of 25. This quickly turned into the drunken table enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke—bringing new meaning to the definition of “kids table.” We snacked on fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, salami, cheese, and salmon bites while throwing back beers and red wine over great conversation.
Finally, around 8 O’Clock dinner was served, and what a glorious spread of food it was! There was filet mignon, skirt steak, moussaka, mixed green salad, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed cabbage, twice-baked potatoes, sautéed veggies, and last but not least, my orzo pasta salad! My mother always taught me that you never show up to a dinner party empty handed and so I thought I would contribute a side dish. Given the Greek crowd, I assumed my orzo salad with feta, tomato, and kalamata olives would be a hit….and it was! Even Yaya loved it—she couldn’t believe that a non-Greek made it! (that obviously made my night!) Although I was proud of my pasta salad and everyone seemed to enjoy it, it was clearly outshined by the rest of the food, and rightfully so! I felt so spoiled to have a delicious home cooked Greek dinner. The moussaka was hands down my favorite part of the meal. Greek moussaka is minced meat layered with eggplant and then baked with a cream sauce on top, and this was the best that I have ever tasted. I couldn’t get enough of it! I never in a million years imagined that there could be leftovers at a dinner party with about 20 guests, but we found ourselves having fourth meal around 2 O’Clock in the morning after a night at the Hard Rock and that moussaka was even better the second time around! The cream sauce was light and fluffy and tasted almost like whipped potato on top. Every forkful was divine. I also loved the stuffed grape leaves, which were served hot with gravy. I had never had warmed stuffed grape leaves before, but I loved it and don’t think I’ll enjoy them cold ever again!
The best part of the evening was dessert though, and for reasons that I shall now explain. You see, it is Greek tradition to bake a new year’s cake with a coin inside. The person that then receives the piece with the coin in it is supposed to have very good luck for the entire year! (I’m sure you already see where I’m going with this, but don’t beat me to the good part yet!). So as they are slicing the cake, they are announcing who each piece is for and all of the dinner guest’s names have been called expect for mine, when Harry’s mom says “and this one is for Ariana’s friend….what is her name again?!” Sure enough, I got the coin! I felt kind of bad taking the good luck from a family who didn’t even know my name, but I sure as hell could use some luck so I wasn’t about to give it up! And that is why I am so pumped for 2011, because I found a foil-wrapped dime in my cake! You better believe that anything good that happens this year will be attributed to that coin.
Here is the recipe for my Greek orzo pasta salad, which is adapted from one that I found in a Bon Appetite magazine a few years back (instead of using marjoram, I use a variety of different herbs). This pasta salad is great for dinner parties, tailgates, and picnics because it makes a lot and everyone only takes a little bit!
- 1 pound of orzo
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 ½ teaspoons lemon zest
- 4 tablespoons chiffonated basil leaves
- 3 green onions, thinly sliced
- 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 ½ cups crumbled feta cheese
- 1 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
- ½ cup olive oil
- 24 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
- (optional) 1 teaspoon fresh mint leaves, chiffonated
Cook out the orzo in boiling and salted water. Drain. Rinse with cold water and then set aside in mixing bowl.
Whisk together the Dijon mustard, olive oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a small bowl. Toss the halved tomatoes with about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and coat the orzo with the remainder. Allow the tomatoes to soak in the vinaigrette for at least an hour so that the flavors develop and then add to the pasta. Add the olives, feta, green onions, basil and mint. Toss to coat and combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve or refrigerate.