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Garden Vegetable Orzo Salad is just right for graduation parties and picnics or as a colorful side dish. Photo by Sue Doeden

Orzo: The all-purpose pasta

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If you've had an opportunity to peruse the grocery store shelves packed with boxes and bags of all sorts of pasta, there is a good chance your eyes caught something called orzo. But is it pasta? You might think it is a type of rice that was mistakenly stocked with the pasta. Or is it a grain?

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These are all common questions when it comes to orzo, an Italian word that means "barley." Orzo is a small, flat, elongated oval-shaped pasta, resembling a grain of barley. It also looks like rice. It's pasta that can be treated like rice. It can even be treated like barley. And that's what makes orzo so versatile.

When orzo cooks, which doesn't take much time at all, it swells and develops a creamy, velvety texture. Because orzo is made of semolina and because of its unobtrusive size, this little pasta becomes the perfect blank canvas for a wide assortment of ingredients.

Tossed into just about any soup, orzo offers substance. It's also one of the best pastas to use in salads because it's a good companion for diced vegetables (but doesn't overwhelm them) and really soaks up flavorful vinaigrette.

Garden Vegetable Orzo Salad is full of colorful vegetables, fresh herbs and dill pickles. The flavorful vinaigrette is made with the brine from the jar of dill pickles as well as a generous squirt of tart juice from a lemon or lime, whisked together with extra-virgin olive oil. The vinaigrette acts as a marinade for the cooked orzo, red onion, minced carrots and pickles as it chills in the refrigerator. Just before serving, the pasta salad gets tossed with finely chopped red and yellow peppers and fresh parsley and chives.

You'll wind up with a large bowl of salad when you make this recipe. It will feed a houseful of guests celebrating a graduation. Made without mayonnaise or eggs, this is a good salad to tote to potluck meals and picnics. And because orzo is a vegetable-friendly pasta, there are endless possibilities for seasonal combinations of color, texture and flavor as we move from spring to summer, all the way into the last harvest of vegetables in early autumn. I'm looking forward to adding small chunks of blanched asparagus to a bowl of Garden Vegetable Orzo Salad in June. And later in the summer, garden-fresh, sweet grape tomatoes, cut in half and added to the orzo salad. But, with every bowl of orzo salad through the gardening season, finely chopped dill pickles are a constant.

If you happen to have a few cups of Garden Vegetable Orzo Salad remaining in the bowl, turn it into another meal with a totally different look by mixing the salad with some of your favorite marinara sauce. Put the mixture into a baking dish and top it with grated mozzarella before baking it in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes.

Pull out a large mixing bowl, chop up some pickles and a few vegetables and toss them all up with cooked orzo, a good pasta choice for an all-purpose salad.

Garden Vegetable Orzo Salad

1 (16-ounce) package or 2 cups orzo, uncooked

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup liquid from jar of dill pickles

Juice of 1 fresh lime or lemon (2 to 3 tablespoons)

1/2 cup very finely chopped red onion

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped dill pickles

1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 yellow bell pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped

A handful each of: fresh Italian parsley leaves, fresh chives, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare orzo according to directions on package, cooking until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Rinse with cool water and drain well. Transfer orzo to large bowl.

Mix olive oil, dill pickle juice and lime or lemon juice. Pour over orzo and toss.

Add red onion, carrot and pickles. Toss gently. Cover bowl tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Add the bell peppers, parsley and chives and season to taste with salt and pepper within an hour of serving. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Makes 8 side dish servings.

Tips from the cook

--Use vegetables fresh from the garden or farmers market when available. Thinly sliced radishes, grape tomatoes cut in half, even torn fresh spinach leaves make nice additions to this salad.

--Crumbled fresh goat cheese is a lovely addition to this salad.

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