Article and photo by Lisa Crockett
I like to cook, I like to eat, and I like to feed the people that I love. So, you might think that dinner at my house is a consistently blissful affair. Alas, real life has a pesky way of interfering with what should otherwise be a pleasant way to wrap up the day and enjoy something tasty while trading witty repartee with my dining companions (aka, my teenaged children).
Many (okay, most) nights, mealtime ranks somewhere on a scale that ranges from mild annoyance to extreme panic. There are schedules to consider, dietary preferences to accommodate, and sheer exhaustion sometimes wins over the desire to whip up something nutritionally balanced and pleasing to the palate. After years of making dinner nearly every night, I have decided there are no easy answers and no way to please everyone all of the time. However, there are occasions when I come close to perfection.
This recipe is an example of one of those times. This meal, born of frustration and a nearly empty pantry, has become a favorite go-to. It’s quick and tastes good. The ingredients are easy to keep on hand, and it can be modified in literally hundreds of ways to suit the whims and whimsy of the cook (me) and her diners (my three ravenous wolves, er, children). I know that if I make this dish, dinner will be happily and quickly consumed with a totally reasonable amount of dishes to deal with in the aftermath. Since a lone straggler (who was at work, school, sports or church late) is a given at our house, it’s nice that this “holds” well for several hours and makes decent leftovers (although we rarely have them).
Several years ago, while contemplating which take-out restaurant we would hustle to before our evening’s activities began, I realized that eating out would take us too far away from our final destination, and I was just going to have to make an at-home meal work. Sandwiches were first on my mind, but I was out of bread. Cold cereal, option number two, wasn’t possible because I was out of milk. (Have I mentioned that while I love cooking, I don’t at all like going to the store?) I opened the cupboard and found some broth and some strangely shaped pasta I had previously purchased for a forgotten experiment. In the fridge, I had a cup of heavy cream leftover from a weekend dessert, a small block of Parmesan cheese and a couple of grilled chicken breasts in need of a home. It wasn’t much, but I set about putting them together, cooking the pasta (rice-shaped orzo) in a mixture of broth and water. When it was done, I drained it a bit and splashed on the cream and stirred in some shredded Parmesan. I served the lot with the leftover chicken chopped on top and served up a side dish of a sliced apple I grabbed from the countertop bowl.
What happened next was literally unprecedented in our home’s history. Three small children sat down, ate every bit of their dinner with no complaint and asked for seconds. And then thirds. Since then, I’ve added veggies, herbs and various proteins to the concoction, sometimes serving it as a hearty side dish and sometimes as the base for a one-bowl meal. I like orzo the best, but if I don’t have it on hand, rigatoni or penne make a respectable substitute. If I’m feeling fancy, lemon zest or artichoke hearts make a savory and beautiful addition.
In short, every time I make this meal, I’m again reminded of how to make magic in the kitchen. If you’re hungry, I suggest you grab the ingredients and abracadabra some for yourself tonight.
1 lb orzo
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Fresh thyme (optional)
Place broth and water in a large pot and bring to a gentle boil, then add orzo. Cook orzo, stirring often, until it becomes tender and the liquid is absorbed. (Add additional water if necessary to finish cooking the pasta.) Remove orzo from heat, and then stir in cream and Parmesan. Allow mixture to sit, covered, for two or three minutes before serving. Garnish with thyme, if desired.