One of my obsessions lately is creating happy hour in my own home. There is something so satisfying about sitting on your own porch with a perfectly paired beer, wine, or cocktail with homemade nibbles that make you feel like you’re at a top notch restaurant.
This weekend I was in the mood for Mediterranean food, and the words marinated feta popped into my head. Eric always laughs at me when I have these light bulb moments, but it’s honestly where I get a lot of my recipe ideas. I’ll just be going about my day when all of a sudden I see food combinations in my head and I have to stop what I’m doing to jot it down right away. In this case, I Googled marinated feta and found a recipe but tweaked it to suit what I was in the mood for. At this point, the orzo salad was basically just an excuse to make marinated cheese. However, I was extremely pleased with this experiment. This pasta salad is the perfect summer side dish! I served it with homemade hummus, toasted pita, and olives.
Over the years I have come up with a specific method when it comes to making pasta salads. It is imperative that you dress the noodles when they are piping hot and still have a little bit of starchy pasta water coating them—that way, the flavor of the dressing really soaks into the noodles. However, I don’t like to throw all my veggies and cheese in when the noodles are so hot because they can lose their crunch and become limp. The solution that I have found that gets you perfect pasta salad every time is to divide your dressing: Use a little over half of the dressing with the hot noodles, and then save the reserved dressing for when they have cooled down a bit. Then you can toss in your veggies and other ingredients with the remaining dressing and you get a perfectly dressed pasta salad with deep layers of flavor throughout.
But back to the star of this pasta salad: the marinated feta. Roasted lemons and garlic give you a deeply concentrated flavor that takes the feta cheese to a whole new level. Fresh oregano and thyme give it a freshness to balance out the saltiness of the cheese while complementing the lemon. You could just eat this cheese on a piece of toasted pita and call it a day. But this salad is super easy to throw together, so there is really no reason not to make it a meal!
Orzo Salad with Marinated Feta
1 lb orzo pasta
1 paint cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 large cucumber, peeled and diced
1/3 cup diced red onion
¼ cup fresh chopped dill
1 clove garlic, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ cup good quality olive oil
Salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
For the marinated feta–
8 oz feta cheese, sliced ½ inch thick
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
*Recipe for marinated Feta adapted from Bon Appetit
- Start by making the marinated feta: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice one of the lemons in thin rounds and place on a baking sheet with the whole cloves of garlic (peel and all). Drizzle over 2 tablespoons of olive oil and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the lemons are lightly charred and the garlic is nicely roasted. Allow to cool slightly.
- In a small dish, combine the feta slices with the remaining ½ cup of olive oil, the juice from the remaining lemon, the pepper flakes, oregano, and thyme. Peel the roasted garlic and crush it with your hands, distributing the garlic throughout the dish. Stir very gently to combine.
- Cover and chill the feta for at least 4 hours, but preferably 8-10 hours.
- Cook the orzo until al dente.
- While the orzo is cooking, prepare the dressing: Combine the minced garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until all ingredients are nicely combined.
- As soon as you drain the orzo, place it in a large bowl. Dress the orzo with roughly ¾ of the prepared dressing. Reserve the remaining ¼ of dressing for later. Allow the orzo mixture to cool slightly, around 30 minutes.
- When the orzo has cooled, add in the cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, dill, and remaining dressing. Toss to combine.
- Using your hands, crumble the marinated feta in large chunks and add into the salad. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the marinating liquid over the salad. Gently stir to combine.
- Chill salad in the refrigerator until ready to eat.