When people learn I love to cook, one of the questions they frequently ask is, “What’s your signature dish?”
That depends. If we’re talking dessert, it would be my cheesecake or any of the pies I make. It took years to perfect my technique to make the best cheesecake. I own four cookbooks dedicated to only to cheesecakes. Mine is creamy and smooth, with just a hint of lemon and not too sweet. The surface is flat, with no cracks. I can’t even order cheesecake at a restaurant because it won’t be better than mine. Cafe Latte on Grand Avenue in St. Paul does make one just as good as mine, but they have so many other pastries to choose from, I wouldn’t bother ordering that. (You can find my cheesecake recipe and technique here.)
If you asked my kids and several of my friends, they would tell you my mushroom orzo is their favorite dish. It’s a decadent form of macaroni and cheese for a sophisticated palate. Rich, cheesy and the best way to indulge in carb loading. The comfort food of the Coletta kids has even found its way onto every holiday table of one of my best friends, Lien. At Thanksgiving, her Vietnamese family doesn’t eat stuffing; they eat this dish. I’m flattered that my recipe has become so iconic to them, but I regret ever sharing it with her. I used to be able to coerce her and her two adorable sons into a visit simply by telling her I was serving it for supper. The siren song of my orzo is powerless now that she’s mastered it.
One secret to the success of this dish is cooking it in a nonstick 4-quart pot. I have a cheap one from Target that does the job nicely. The nonstick surface ensures every bit of cheese and pasta makes its way into your belly and clean up is a breeze, too. While the kids were growing up, two of them hated mushrooms. I still added them, because the earthy flavor they impart to the dish is what makes it perfect.
16 oz fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced (I use baby portabella or white. Feel free to experiment!)
One 12 oz. box Barilla orzo
32 oz. low or no salt chicken broth (The Parmesan and butter will add plenty of salt, you don’t need all that extra sodium.)
5 oz. bag Sargento grated Parmesan (or 1 1/4 C of your favorite brand)
One stick salted butter
One large shallot, minced (I use a small food processor and get a super fine mince.)
Four large fresh garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press
2 TBSP fresh thyme (NOT dried)
A pinch of red pepper flakes or Maras pepper (My new favorite. It’s not going to make the dish spicy, it only imparts a gentle heat.)
In a large saute pan, melt the butter and add shallots, garlic, mushrooms, and thyme. Cook it down for ten minutes, then bring the chicken broth to a boil in a nonstick 4-quart pot.
Saute until mushrooms have given up their liquid, then turn the mixture down to a slow simmer. Once broth is at a boil, add orzo, then immediately turn the burner down to medium and stir the orzo frequently. Keep a close eye on the pasta as the liquid is absorbed.
Once the orzo takes on a creamy, soupy appearance (about ten minutes), get it off the heat and add the parmesan cheese and stir until thoroughly combined. Next add the mushroom mixture, including all liquids. Serve immediately. Salt and pepper to taste. Sometimes, I get a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and shred the meat, adding it to the pasta right after the mushroom mixture. You could also substitute some of the broth with wine for a more adult version.