Spring vegetable orzo + how to: make a bechamel

The title of this post is kind of a lie. I was making this orzo dish that included a bechamel, and since the dish was pretty easy and cookingly uninteresting, I was like, ooh, I can teach everyone how to make a bechamel! But it turns out I am not qualified to do that, because I have no idea how to make a bechamel. I mean, the orzo came out very good, so I guess it was successful, but I had no idea what I was doing.

Béchamels are one of those classic French sauces that everyone thinks are difficult to make. Then every cookbook author goes, “You probably think béchamels are difficult to make, but they are super easy!” Then you try, and it turns out that no, they are actually really difficult and it always goes awry.

Martha Rose Shulman, who does the Recipes for Health column at the New York Times and is one of my favorites, says this about béchamels. Hers is an olive-oil bechamel instead of butter, since she is healthy, and I used her recipe because it was a part of her other recipe that I was using. And I am not confident enough to make my own béchamels, willy-nilly.

Anyway. I found this recipe a few weeks ago and almost made it when I made that other orzo dish instead, but I thought this one had ricotta, which I didn’t have, so I didn’t make it. But it doesn’t have ricotta. It seemed like a good, springy May lunch for the week in an air-conditioned office, but I kind of defeated the purpose by using canned/frozen vegetables, since there are no farmers’ markets open near me at this time of year and I don’t really think peas and artichokes are in season, anyway. (You probably can’t even grow artichokes on this coast, right??) I am an expert on vegetables.

So I bought frozen peas and then searched the supermarket in a panic until I found semi-decent-looking canned artichoke hearts (I can’t remember what brand, and in trying to figure it out I found a Serious Eats thread that stated that all people who use canned artichoke hearts are horrible, despicable human beings; fuck you, canned artichoke heart snobs). (I did look for frozen ones, but there weren’t any.) (Whatever. I will use canned shit if I want to!!!!! AND IT TASTED GOOD.) Use fresh ones if you can, obviously. But I won’t bother. Please refer to Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for how to do that.

I started by trying to make the béchamel. I heated the olive oil and then added the flour (I skipped the onion—this was the day I got back from Nashville and I was hungry and crabby and did not feel like chopping a tablespoon of onion). It was supposed to become the texture of wet sand, but the oil just sort of melted all the flour and I had this perfectly smooth, pale-brown, beautiful mixture that I was pretty sure was the opposite of what it was supposed to be. I whisked in the milk and continued whisking for a while, waiting for it to thicken. It DID NOT THIICKEN. At least, not noticeably. After probably twenty minutes I thought maybe it had thickened a little, and turned it off. Sorry, but this is all I can tell you about béchamels.

My béchamel, at some point in the process.

In some order, I sautéed the artichoke hearts (I used about half a large can, for all you infidels like me), cooked the orzo, defrosted the peas in the microwave (probably unnecessary), and mixed everything together in a 2.5-qt. Pyrex glass bowl. I added the dill, which I had in the freezer and which all sogged and clumped together as soon as I took it out, and tried to evenly distribute it. I didn’t. I added the parsley, too, which I bought fresh, and then later stripped all the remaining parsley off the stems and stuck it in the freezer. You’re not really supposed to do this, but I’ve had pretty good luck with incompetently frozen herbs. (See: cilantro.) Oh, and I added parmesan. Yum.

It baked for half an hour and then was eaten for lunch all week. It was really good—though very mild-tasting— but not really lunch-sufficient. I would be perfectly happy for like half an hour after eating it and then would become HUNGRY AND ANGRY. So just keep that in mind. This is not filling. Unless you have a weirdly small stomach or something.

Just pre-baking

This is off-topic, but I also made this really good-looking salad.

Orzo with Artichokes and Peas
Adapted/easyfied from Martha Rose Shulman

4 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 tbsp flour
2 c milk
2 large or 4 small artichoke hearts, or ~ 1/2 can artichoke hearts, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb orzo
3/4 c shelled peas
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp chopped dill
2 oz parmesan (1/2 c), grated

Make the béchamel: Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil over medium in a saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for three minutes—do not brown. Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer, while whisking, until it begins to thicken. (Or not?? Who knows.) Turn the heat to very low and simmer, whisking and scraping the bottom/edges of the pan so it doesn’t burn, for 10 minutes, until thickened. Season with s&p. Put the béchamel somewhere. (I just stuck it in the Pyrex bowl for the oven.) Oh, preheat your oven to 350°.

Sauté the artichoke hearts in the other 2 tbsp of olive oil. Add the garlic. Cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Cook the orzo in a pot of salted water; after 5 minutes, add the peas, if using fresh, and cook for another 4 minutes. (I used frozen and just defrosted them in the microwave for a few minutes and then added them to the Pyrex bowl; I wouldn’t have bothered even defrosting, but I didn’t want things to get watery.)

After these various things are done, mix them all together, with the herbs and cheese, and bake for 30 minutes.

Note that this was actually really really easy, other than the béchamel issues.


3 thoughts on “Spring vegetable orzo + how to: make a bechamel

  1. I have a similar problem with risotto, where what looks like a perfectly normal serving of food that is full of cheese and butter somehow does not fill me up anywhere near as long as it should. Perhaps there is some weird chemistry of rice and dairy?

    Wait, apparently orzo is pasta. So that would mean mac & cheese shouldn’t fill you up either, unless you put lots more things in it.


    (I am being brilliant on the Internet tonight, clearly.)

  2. I think it’s just limited protein + non-whole-grains. Mac & cheese has way more cheese than this or risotto. And rice has a high glycemic index, I think? So that maybe means it’s not filling? Same for white pasta.

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