The Thrill of a Good Template

An unwitting smile creeps in as I stand at my counter chopping something or rummaging through my fridge or pantry as an idea for a dish takes shape. It’s the thrill of a new idea–an idea built on a tried and true method to feed whomever will be at the table. Often it’s one ingredient that triggers the plan. In the case of this bowl of pasta risotto with leeks, cherry tomatoes, etc. , it was a pint of the very last of the cherry tomatoes a friend shared. And it was a recent facebook post by a friend asking what to do with little bits of different kinds of pasta that had accumulated in his pantry. If you cook (especially small shapes) pasta, like risotto (minus most of the stirring) you get a deliciously creamy result and precise cooking times don’t matter since you’re not after al dente!


This Pasta “Risotto” Template is going to get a lot of play this fall. I can’t wait to see what other combinations surface. And please share your ideas or variations if you make it. I can imagine a Thai-inspired version with coconut milk as some of the fat and/or liquid and cilantro and hot peppers and maybe rice noodles instead of regular pasta though they might get too gummy. . . Oh the fun of experimentation!


Pasta “Risotto” Template


Since this a template it should go without saying that you can vary it to suit your needs and taste; different shapes of pasta, stock or broth rather than water, cheese/no cheese, cream/no cream, herbs, spices . . . What you need is some small pasta, vegetables, hot liquid and a bit of fat in one form or another.


Serves 4


1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil or butter or a combo

1 small onion, finely diced

1 leek, cleaned, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into thin strips

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or a little rosemary or sage or lots of parsley, etc.

1 pint cherry tomatoes or 1 1/2 cups canned, chopped tomatoes

1 cup orzo pasta (rice shaped pasta) or a combination of any very small pasta shapes. I used 2/3 orzo and 1/3 Israeli couscous in the above version

2 1/4 cups boiling water or stock or broth

2-3 cups finely chopped mustard greens, tender stems and all, or another tender green like spinach, beet greens, mizuna, turnip greens

1/2 cup grated Parmesan or other hard cheese, optional

1-2 tablespoon good olive oil or butter, to finish (to taste and optional)

Splash of heavy cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Heat oil or butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add onions, leeks and thyme and stir well. Sprinkle with salt and cook for about 5-7 minutes until softened. Meanwhile heat up your broth or water. Add tomatoes to onions and cook for 3-4 minutes until beginning to fall apart. Add pasta and hot water/broth and stir well. Add more salt here, unless you’re using salty broth. Stir well and partially cover and turn down to medium low. Cook for about 7 minutes, stirring once or twice. Then add the greens and stir well and cook for another few minutes until greens are as tender as you’d like them and pasta is cooked. Stir in the oil, butter and/or cheese, if using. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and/or pepper. Serve hot or warm.


Sunday was beautiful. The weather has finally turned warm here and we were all hanging out on a neighbor’s stoop Sunday evening. I had planned to make Barley Risotto with Asparagus (still trying to make that Barley Asparagus combo work!) and had actually measured out the broth, cleaned and sliced the asparagus and measured out the barley earlier in the day. Well now I found myself on said stoop with a beer in hand and children happily playing and just couldn’t tear myself away and head inside. So I stayed on the stoop, sampling said neighbor’s fresh bread with butter.

My son "Improvising" . . . since I don't have a photo of the improvised dinner I figured this would have to do!

When I finally tore myself away from the convivial, summer neighborhood fun I knew that the three-year-old, now over-hungry, was not going to wait for risotto. And I had a pastry-chef friend coming over to sample/critique a sample wedding cake after dinner so . . .What is the quickest cooking grain? I think it’s quinoa so that’s what was made. I basically treated it like I would have the rice (sans slowly adding broth and stirring) and we had ourselves the most delicious quick quinoa/risotto. I’m definitely going to repeat this technique and try other veggies as well.

Needless to say I did not remember to take a photo of the prep or the finished dish, so my son doing his version of improv it is!

Quick Quinoa “Risotto” with Asparagus

This technique is actually more like Spanish Rice than Risotto but whatever you want to call it, it’s worth trying.

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 slice of bacon, diced (optional)

1 bunch of asparagus, tough ends snapped off, and cut diagonally into 1-2 inch pieces

1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained

handful of grated parmesan or other hard cheese

3 cups veggies broth or stock (I used my homemade Veggie Bouillon)

olive oil

Heat broth in a small pan. Saute onion and bacon in large saute pan with 2 Tbs of olive oil until onion is translucent and soft. Rinse quinoa well and strain thoroughly. Add quinoa to onions and bacon and saute for a few minutes until dried out and slightly toasty over high heat. Add broth all at once. Bring to a boil, turn down to simmer and cover. After about 10 minutes spread asparagus over quinoa and cover again. Cook until quinoa and asparagus are done–about 3-4 minutes. Add parmesan and some more good olive oil and mix well. Voila!

P.S. I still have a few spots in this Saturday’s Cooking Class on Hearty One-Dish Salads and meal with Grains and Beans and lots of Veggies. It’s a fabulous class! Check it out and sign up if you’re interested.