Most orzo pasta recipes satisfy like comfort food while keeping it light and bright. Parmesan Orzo with Zucchini and Tomatoes is no exception. It’s the epitome of a quick and easy meal, with a creamy parmesan cheese sauce, sautéed veggies, fresh basil, and lots of ground pepper.
When I was a kid and got sick, I was plied with all the normal trappings – OJ, saltines, chicken soup, etc. – but as an Italian-American kid I also had the bonus comfort of pastina.
These teeny, tiny little pasta nuggets shaped like microscopic stars – technically called “stelline,” since all tiny pastas are classified as pastina – were mixed with egg, parmesan and butter to create a dish that’s akin to cheesy grits. It’s creamy and dreamy and there’s just something about the texture of a spoonful of hundreds of tiny little noodles that is incomparable.
Now that I’m all grown up, so is my pastina. While recipes like lemon orzo are decidedly more adult-y, there plenty of orzo recipes that evoke the same comforting nostalgia. On sick days I comfort a runny nose with Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup, and when the summer potlucks come around, I often double a batch of my favorite orzo salad.
The newest edition, tomato orzo, is warm and creamy just like my pastina was, but I punched up the flavor with garlic (of course) and sautéed veggies. Blistered tomatoes and slightly-charred zucchini made the final cut for this orzo pasta recipe, but we’ve got lots of suggestions to create combos of your own below.
What Is Orzo?
Don’t be fooled by orzo’s appearance. Even though this tiny “pastina” is shaped like a grain of rice, orzo pasta is 100% noodle, baby. The flavor and performance are squarely in line with other pastas.
Another fun fact? Orzo isn’t called “orzo” in the old country, because orzo is the Italian word for another grain – barley. You’ll see its “real” pasta name, risoni, used on some commercial pasta boxes in the US. (I do not make the rules, I just bring the confusion to your doorstep.)
Parmesan Orzo Pasta Recipe
Orzo Pasta with Tomatoes and Zucchini makes a perfect light lunch or supper. Fold sautéed zucchini and blistered tomatoes into cooked orzo to bulk it up. Then combine starchy pasta water and parmesan cheese to create a creamy sauce, finished with lots of ground pepper and fresh basil. While quick, pan-seared veggies made the final cut in this recipe, there are plenty of ways to add a variety of different veggies, from seared to roasted.
- Boil the orzo in salted water to 1 minute below al dente. Reserve a half-cup pasta water, then drain.
- Saute the vegetables. Start the zucchini first (it takes a few more minutes), then add the tomatoes. Cook until the zucchini is browned on the edges and the tomatoes start to blister. Add fresh garlic at the end and cook for 1 minute more.
- Add the cooked orzo along with grated parmesan cheese and a splash of pasta water. Fold the pasta into the veggies until the cheese melts and a sauce develops.
- Stir in fresh basil and ground pepper. Serve right away, with more fresh basil and parmesan cheese. Enjoy!
- Be careful when cooking orzo and don’t boil too long. Small pastas are not as forgiving and can get mushy fast!
- Don’t replace pasta water with regular water or broth – the residual starch left behind from boiling the pasta helps emulsify the dairy fat in the parmesan cheese to build a silky, smooth sauce.
- Always save more pasta water than the recipe calls for in case you need to thin out your sauce – you can’t get it back later if you dump it.
- Plus, reserved pasta water is a great way to reconstitute the sauce after storing. Add a tablespoon per serving when reheating, and your sauce will be a creamy as it was the day it was made!
Is Orzo Pasta Healthy?
Pasta is pasta is pasta – if you want it to be healthy, it’s all about balance. There are some straightforward ways to make orzo healthier, depending on your needs – whole wheat orzo is delicious, and commercially available (we like the DeLallo brand). You could also use gluten-free orzo.
But one of the reasons I love using orzo in healthy pasta recipes is because it’s REALLY easy to load up on veggies without it feeling like pasta salad. Orzo’s shape is small, so a little goes a long way in providing a starchy base with plenty of room for colorful, nutritious add-ins.
Is Orzo Gluten Free?
Orzo pasta might be shaped to mimic the appearance of rice, but it is not gluten free. Even when it’s referred to as “risoni,” it should not be confused with risotto. Unless otherwise specified on the packaging, it’s made with wheat or semolina flour, which contains gluten.
Thankfully, gluten free orzo is available (if not readily available) and the trusted purveyors of our favorite jarred pesto sauce (among other real food convenience items), DeLallo, makes a great one!
What Other Veggies Can I Use?
The most beautiful thing about this orzo pasta recipe is that you can swap almost any vegetable you want. I like to go for ones whose flavor profiles I already know will work with garlic and parmesan. Some good options to mix and match (or swap) with tomatoes and zucchini are:
- Bell peppers: red, yellow, orange, and/or green
- Onions: red, yellow, white, or sweet
- Yellow squash
- Mushrooms: button or bella
- Broccoli and/or Cauliflower
If you’re unsure about how to saute any of these veggies, click the links for complete cooking guides, or follow our easy method for sheet pan roasted vegetables instead.
Did you make this orzo pasta recipe? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below.
Parmesan Orzo with Tomatoes and ZucchiniPrint Recipe Rate this Recipe Pin Recipe
- Medium Sauce Pot
- 4 c water or broth
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1.5 c orzo pasta
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 large zucchini, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ c grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tbsp julienned basil
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepot. Once boiling, season with the kosher salt.
- Add the orzo to the boiling water and stir. Boil for 6 minutes (or 1 one minute below al dente according to package directions). Reserve ½ c pasta water, then drain.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 12” skillet over medium high heat until it shimmers. Add the zucchini, toss to coat in the fat, then allow to saute, undisturbed, for 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, then give the pan a good toss. Saute, undisturbed for 4 minutes, until the zucchini is soft and the tomatoes are just starting to blister where they had contact with the skillet.
- Add the garlic and saute, stirring frequently, for 1 minute more.
- Add the cooked orzo to the skillet, along with ¼ cup of pasta water and the parmesan cheese. Fold the pasta into the vegetables until the parmesan melts, forming a creamy sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add more pasta water a tablespoon at a time.
- Remove from heat and stir in the fresh basil and ground pepper. Serve right away, garnished with more fresh basil to taste.