Orzo with Merguez Sausage and Chickpeas
As soon as the ground begins to thaw I start thinking about picnics, backyard BBQ, and cottage parties. In fact, the ground doesn’t even need to be thawed; mostly snow-free is fine by me. After all, any good Canadian can debate for hours about which is the superior season: Winter or Patio Season. Because that’s all we’ve got. If there is no snow on the ground, it’s patio season. Or, if there’s only minimal snow on the ground, it might still be considered patio season. As someone who has happily bundled up in a parka to sit outside and sip a self-frosting pint of beer at a local wateringhole, I can assure you that our current weather in the mid to high teens (Celsiusº, dudes. C’mon) is definitely patio season.
Every good patio party has a few things in common:
- Beer , wine and spirits, as well as Diet Sparkling Lemonade for your buddy’s new girlfriend who doesn’t drink beer because “It makes you fat…” as she pointedly looks at your midsection.
- Music – even if your speakers are actually in the basement and you have to open up every door and window in the house to discern the teensiest scratchy riff.
- Food – Something bold, something new, a recipe borrowed and nothing that serves just two.
Creamy potato salad and mayo-laden coleslaw definitely have their place in the world, but when it comes to massive amounts of food that may end up facing down the elements for hours at a time, I prefer reliable (and temperature stable) dishes that give you bang for the buck without the threat of impending Delhi Diapers when they’ve been sitting in the sun. To this end, ginormous bean salads, spicy little curried Asian noodle numbers and any iteration of pasta salad (particularly when made with teensy plump Israeli couscous) are all sure things. But when the sun starts to heat things up and you want to add a bit of North African flair to the meal, well, it’s time to pick up some Merguez sausage and scrounge around in your pantry until dinner is done.
Orzo with Merguez Sausage and Chickpeas
- 1 cup orzo *
- 9 links (375 g) merguez sausage **
- 1/4 medium red onion
- 1 can (19 oz) chickpeas
- 1/2 cup dried apricots (about 15)
- 2 whole roasted red peppers
- 1/2 preserved lemon
- 2 small (or 1 large) cloves garlic
- 3/4 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp cayenne or hot red chili powder
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
- handful fresh mint (1/3 cup finely chopped)
- salt and pepper to taste
* Orzo is a small flat noodle that is shaped rather like a large grain of rice. If you prefer to use rice, a nice nutty long grain brown rice would be a delicious alternative.
** Merguez is a richly flavored lamb sausage common in Moroccan, Tunisian and North African cuisine. It is characterized by the color (reddish brown from a whack of paprika and various chilis or harissa) and the shape, which is long and thin from being stuffed into lamb casings rather than hog. If you can’t find merguez sausage, a not-to-similar substitute would be sweet Spanish chorizo, which has a distinctly different flavor but would still be delicious.
Put a large pot of water over high heat so that it can come to a boil while you ready the other ingredients. While you’re there, set a large skillet over medium heat and dollop in a mere teaspoon or two of oil to brown the sausages when it gets nice and hot.
In the mean time, peel one quarter of a red onion and chop it finely. Nice, small, interspersed bites of red onion are always my preference in a salad, rather than large chunks which always seem to wheeze a come hither song to halitosis.
Chop the dried apricots into a small dice (about 1/4″) and give the roasted red pepper a slightly larger chop. Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas and put all four prepared ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
Scrape the pulp out of the preserved lemon quarters, reserving just the rind.
Finely mince the preserved lemon and the garlic together. Keep going back and forth over this with your knife, as well as using the flat side of your knife to crush and scrape the mixture until it is mashed and has a paste like consistency. Put this into a smallish mixing bowl and add the dried spices.
Pour the vinegar into the bowl and whisk it well until the spices are dissolved into the mixture. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, until you have an emulsified mixture.
I bet you dollars to donuts that by now your pot of water is at a rolling boil. Salt the water heavily (you are making pasta, after all) and cook the orzo until it is done but still a bit al dente. Orzo cooks up quickly, so this will only take about 5 minutes or so.
Drain the cooked orzo and rinse it well under cool running water. You wouldn’t rinse pasta for your dinner, but when you’re making a pasta salad type of dish you want to try to remove as much of the starch clinging to your noodles as possible or they will just absorb all the vinaigrette and get gummy.
Add the rinsed orzo to the rest of the mix and toss it with half (1/2) of the dressing, which meets two goals. The orzo will immediately suck up the dressing, which is why you don’t want to add it all right now, but that’s also adding an instant hit of flavor to otherwise bland pasta. The second reason is to prevent the orzo from clumping and sticking as it cools.
Now we haven’t forgotten about that hot pan either! Brown the merguez sausages until they are colored and cooked through, which only takes about 5 minutes because they’re so thin. When the sausages are cooked, slice them into small rounds and add to the rest of the salad along with the remaining dressing.
Just before serving, finely chop a handful of fresh mint leaves (about 1/3 cup when chopped) and stir it that into the rest of the salad.
This salad is actually better made in advance and left to hang out either in the fridge or at room temperature for a couple of hours. It will only get better as the flavors marry and mellow into one another. Be sure to refrain from adding the chopped mint until just before serving though, because that vibrant and fresh green punch is what elevates the dish and keeps it light.
Chock full of chickpeas and sausage, to call this just a pasta salad or side dish seems like a bit of a travesty. After all, this is a salad that eats like a meal and doesn’t want you to forget that.
…..An exotic, richly spiced and fragrant meal, but a light meal nonetheless.