Ready in around 15 minutes, this orzo salad with pesto is such an easy side dish for a midweek meal or summer BBQ. Made with just orzo pasta, basil pesto, fresh spinach and tangy parmesan, it may be simple but it’s also beautifully fresh and flavorful.
Add toasted pine nuts for crunch, or why not make it a main dish by adding chicken or salmon? With the option to enjoy this Mediterranean orzo salad either cold or hot, it’ll become a firm family favorite!
Why you’ll love it
- Fresh and flavorful, despite having few ingredients. Small orzo pasta easily soaks up the flavors in the salad.
- Such a quick and easy pasta salad. Orzo cooks in around half the time as rice, so you’ll only need around 15 minutes to make this.
- Delicious Mediterranean flavors. The herby, garlic-y, fresh taste of the pesto and spinach contrast perfectly with the rich and salty parmesan and crunchy pine nuts. The splash of vinegar adds a little tang.
- Versatile! Serve as an easy midweek side dish alongside chicken, fish or a vegetarian main. Or add meat, fish, beans, cheese and extra veggies to transform it into a tasty main.
- Great for making ahead. Take along to a party, pot luck or barbecue. Also perfect for work or school lunch boxes!
About the ingredients
Dried orzo pasta: This small pasta looks like large grains of rice. But it’s definitely pasta, not rice! You can find it in the pasta aisle of most grocery stores. Note that it’s sometimes called risoni instead of orzo.
If you can’t find it where you live, good substitutes would be pearl couscous or another small pasta shape such as ditalini, fregola, acini de pepe or even small macaroni.
For the pesto
Fresh basil: Try to grab a nice fresh bunch of basil to make the pesto for this salad.
In case you don’t have a food processor, feel free to buy a good quality jarred pesto from a supermarket. Bear in mind that most commercially produced pestos these days contain cashew nuts rather than pine nuts, in case there’s an allergy to consider.
Pine nuts: These can be on the expensive side, but you don’t need many. You can sometimes buy them ready-toasted. But if you can’t find them toasted it’s worth spending the extra few minutes to toast them yourself, for extra flavor and crunch!
If you’re finding pine nuts hard to come by, you can easily substitute with a tree nut such as almonds or cashews. Even peanuts will work.
A garlic clove: You’ll only need a small clove, since the garlic will be added to the pesto raw.
Extra virgin olive oil: This is actually a key ingredient in the recipe, so it’s worth going for a good quality brand.
Baby spinach: The fresher the better! Of course, you can substitute with regular fresh spinach – just chop finely.
Parmesan cheese: It’s best to use either thickly grated parmesan or shaved parmesan in this recipe.
Vinegar: I use either white wine vinegar or cider vinegar, but any white vinegar is fine. Alternatively, you can use lemon juice instead for a hint of zesty flavor.
Salt and pepper: I usually season the finished orzo with pesto to taste. Since the parmesan is already salty, you won’t need to add much salt.
How to make an orzo salad with pesto
The step-by-step guide below should help you make the recipe perfectly first time. Scroll down to the end for the full recipe including ingredient amounts.
The first step is to boil the orzo pasta in a large pot of water according to the packet instructions. Follow the instructions for ‘al dente’ pasta. Alternatively, simply take a minute or two off the regular cooking time.
When it’s ready, drain and rinse in cold water. Then put the cooked orzo into a large bowl.
Meanwhile, you can toast the pine nuts (if they aren’t toasted already). Simply toss them around for a few minutes in a dry pan (no oil needed!). Keep a close eye on them. You want them to be a golden brown color, but obviously not burned.
The next step is to make a batch of fresh basil pesto. It’s so quick and easy! Just add all of the ingredients to a mini food processor (or any food processor) and pulse for a few seconds.
Then all you have to do is add the fresh pesto to the cold orzo pasta.
Then you can stir in the vinegar, along with the chopped spinach and most of the parmesan.
Pile into a serving bowl. If you like, you can drizzle over a little extra olive oil.
Look how green and fresh your pesto orzo salad looks!
Helen’s top tips
- Only cook the orzo pasta until it’s ‘al dente’ or ‘still a little firm’. This literally means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian.
- If serving your orzo pasta salad cold, cover and chill for around 4 hours in the fridge before serving. Prefer to serve warm? Don’t rinse the orzo in cold water after boiling. Simply drain and stir through a little olive oil to prevent sticking.
- It’s worth making your own pesto sauce. Most shop-bought pestos contain substitute (usually cheaper) ingredients. A mini food processor or chopper is perfect, although any food processor or blender will do the job.
- Also bear in mind that basil is quite easy to grow in a pot in summer! It’s much more convenient (and more affordable) to grown your own.
- Why not make a double batch of basil pesto and freeze half for next time? Alternatively, use the rest in this Mediterranean penne pasta salad or this amazing 15-minute creamy pesto chicken recipe.
How to serve
I think this pesto orzo salad is perfect on the side with any kind of grilled or barbecued meat or fish. Try it with this marinated Greek chicken, these easy air fryer chicken thighs (also possible in the oven!), or another simple chicken recipe.
You can serve it as a single side dish or together with other Mediterranean style sides. I like a classic Greek ‘village’ salad or Greek lettuce salad and perhaps a little tsatziki sauce as well.
If you want to serve it with a show-stopper, try this Italian burrata caprese salad.
To keep the meal vegetarian, this risoni salad would also pair well with this delicious baked eggplant recipe. Or how about cauliflower fritters, Greek zucchini fries, or perhaps the best crustless quiche you ever tasted?
Also, it’s actually equally as delicious served cold or warm!
I love this pesto orzo pasta salad just as it is, for its fresh, refreshing flavors and simplicity. However, there are so many ways to make it your own. Here are a few ideas.
- Add meat or fish. I’m thinking leftover rotisserie chicken (or any chicken!), flaked salmon, shrimp, bacon, chorizo, or any other protein you like. Serve as a main dish, or a work or school lunch.
- Keep it vegetarian but add canned chickpeas (or another type of canned bean), crispy halloumi bites, tofu or chopped hard-boiled egg for added protein.
- Add more veggie goodness. How about cubed bell peppers, cucumber, juicy cherry tomatoes or red onion? Or how about jarred sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts or green or Kalamata olives? No pre-cooking necessary!
- Add more cheese. Feta works brilliantly, as does sliced mozzarella balls, or really any cheese you like.
- Try a different type of pasta. I know, it’s an orzo pasta salad recipe, but you can achieve a similar result using pearl couscous or another type of small pasta.
If you keep it in the fridge in an airtight container, it will keep well for up to 3-4 days.
You’ve probably overcooked it. Keep an eye on it while cooking and make sure you only cook it until ‘al dente’ or just done. Take a couple of minutes off the regular cooking time and go from there.
They are so similar that you can use them in recipes interchangeably. They are both shaped like grains of rice, but orzo tends to be a bit larger than risoni. Just bear in mind that risoni may therefore cook a bit faster.
More easy orzo recipes
Got leftover orzo (risoni) pasta in the pantry? Here are some more ways to use it up.
- Love one pan dinners? Love risotto? Then there’s also a good chance you’ll like this creamy chicken orzo with mushrooms and bacon.
- If it’s Mediterranean style recipes you’re a fan of (specifically Greek!), give this ‘giouvetsi’ or Greek chicken orzo (also one pan!) a try.
- Orzo also works incredibly well in soups. This creamy chicken lemon orzo soup is epic, and so easy to make.
Or check out this amazing list of 38 best risoni (orzo) recipes. There are more salads, but also one pan orzo dinners, orzo soups and more!
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Simple Orzo Salad With Pesto
Equipment (affiliate links)
Ingredients (UK/Australia? Click below for grams/ml)
- 1¼ cups orzo pasta Sometimes called risoni.
- 1 cup fresh basil About 2 big handfuls or a small to medium sized bunch.
- ¼ cup pine nuts Buy ready toasted or follow instructions in recipe to toast yourself.
- 1 small clove garlic
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus a little extra for drizzling (good quality if possible)
- 2 cups baby spinach leaves fresh, washed and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese grated (quite thickly)
- 2 tablespoons vinegar White wine vinegar or cider vinegar are good choices. Or use lemon juice.
- salt and pepper to taste
- Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions for 'al dente' or 'just cooked' (if no instructions for al dente then cook for a little less time than suggested). Drain and rinse in cold water and put into a large bowl. Unless serving hot in which case don't rinse in cold water.1¼ cups orzo pasta
- Meanwhile, if not using ready-toasted pine nuts, toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan on a medium heat. Keep an eye on them, tossing them around until they are lightly brown. Then set aside to cool.¼ cup pine nuts
- Then make the homemade pesto. Put most of the basil, about half of the toasted pine nuts, the garlic and the olive oil into the bowl of a food processor (a small food processor is perfect). Pulse for a few seconds until well combined.1 cup fresh basil, 1 small clove garlic, 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Pour the pesto over the orzo and mix well. Then add the chopped spinach, the rest of the basil (chopped a little), the rest of the pine nuts, the parmesan and vinegar and combine again. Season with salt and pepper to taste.2 cups baby spinach leaves, 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons vinegar, salt and pepper
- Spoon the pasta salad into a serving bowl, then drizzle over a little extra olive oil to serve.
Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella says
I can totally understand why you made your own version. Especially when you know that it is orzo and that you could make a huge bowl of it and then quite happily eat that instead of a tiny little container! 😀
Oh yes, I could QUITE happily eat a huuuge bowl of this all to myself!
Sabrina Modelle says
Brits have the best names for foods. My grandmother was raised in London and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that it dawned on me that people in the US did not know what I was talking about when I said things like “eggs and soldiers”. This looks lovely and fresh just in time for our spring heatwave. Just love it.
Hello, Sabrina! Thanks so much for passing by! I’m very jealous of your heatwave … it’s still pretty cold over here in the UK. That’s why I need to start making fresh-looking foods like this to remind myself that spring is actually supposed to be here already!
Oooh, ‘eggs and soldiers’!! We used to have those every Sunday evening just about!
Gayle @ Pumpkin 'N Spice says
What a gorgeous salad, Helen! I love the pretty green colors. And pesto and parmesan are pretty much the best combination ever. Looks so delicious!
Thank you so much, Gayle! Hope you’re having a nice week!
[email protected] says
I’m a greedy guts too. And I can’t think of a better motivation to create a copycat recipe than because the pots you buy it in is so small. Kudos to you Helen. We are too similar!!
lol … well, I can think of worse reasons to copy a recipe … 🙂
I’m very fond of a good jacket potato too, but your salad looks super good and I might have to choose that instead.
Hello and thanks so much for passing by! Really glad you like this and hope you consider giving it a go some time!
Medha @ Whisk & Shout says
This looks so fresh and delish! We’ve got something similar in the US at Whole Foods, a spinach orzo salad I always covet 🙂 This is so much healthier and cost-effective, though!
Hi, Medha! Whole Foods sounds a bit like Marks and Spencer … lots of pre-packaged food, but yummy and high quality. Really happy you like this!
Marissa | Pinch and Swirl says
I’m a huge pesto fan and I love the idea of making it with spinach. This is my kind of pasta!
Thanks, Marissa! 🙂
I love orzo and make it often, and this looks like an incredible way to change things up by making it green! I’ve never made it with pesto — terrible. That’ll be happening soon!
I should have just called this ‘green orzo’, shouldn’t I? Glad you like this, Marcie. It’s a great take-along dish!
Looks so fresh and delicious! Definitely some of my favorite ingredients! Love spinach so much! Pinned of course!
Thanks, Mira! This does indeed taste extremely fresh. Thanks again for pinning! 🙂
Annie @ ciaochowbambina says
Oh yes! This has Easter written all over it!! I love orzo, I love pesto, I love Parmesan. This is a perfect bowl of food, my friend!
Thank you so much for saying so, Annie! I actually wasn’t thinking this was particularly a spring or easter recipe, but I can see now that it is!
Dannii @ Hungry Healthy Happy says
I have only recently discovered orzo, but I love it and it makes a nice change from regular pasta. This sound delicious too.
I was first introduced to orzo when I was living in Greece – it’s really popular there. But I only see it from time to time over here, don’t you? I hope you try this some time. It’s great for weekday lunches!
Jess @ whatjessicabakednext says
Love this salad, Helen! Loving the pesto and orzo – such a great combo! 😀
Thanks, Jess! It does work really well, I must admit! 😉
J’aime beaucoup les “jacket potatoes”, quand j’étais en Angleterre j’ai mangé beaucoup. J’aimé bien la simplicité de la pomme de terre et qu’on puis la changé totalement selon son dressage !
Ta salade est génial, simple et gouteuse, juste comme j’aime !
Merci, Eva! Moi aussi j’adore des pommes faites comme ca. Tout le monde aime les manger ici … avec des ‘toppings’ differents, comme tu dis! 🙂
Kathleen | HapaNom says
Oh I love orzo salads! And your recipe with all of those wonderful greens is SO perfect for the season! It’s like spring in a bowl – I love it!
Thanks so much, Kathleen. I love that – spring in a bowl! 🙂
I’ve been in an Orzo salad mood lately and our weather is so warm right now. I’ll be making this tomorrow night!!
Oh, really, Renee? I really hope you enjoy it! 🙂
Lori @ TheHealthMinded.com says
I really enjoy those kind of dinners, too, Helen, This is so pretty and I know I would love the flavors in this. Love all your British lingo and oh yes . . . Marks and Spencers is special!
Ha! Really glad you enjoy my ‘Britishness’, Lori … and this simple salad!
Oooo I love this. I might have to make something very similar to it to bring for easter this year! I mean, it’s the perfect kind of Easter food, don’t you think?
Really happy you like this so much, Joanne! And yes, I definitely think it’s great ‘bring-along’ food for a party. I would definitely add some feta and/or sundried tomatoes if I was taking it to a party, though … yummy!
Love the simplicity of this salad! It’s great in flavor and really light and healthy for dinner. It’ll be a perfect one-dish meal with some white wine 😉 Btw, do you think it’s ok to add some roasted chicken in it? I prefer to have more protein and reduce the amount of pasta sometimes.
Oh yes, you could definitely add chicken into this … why not? I wouldn’t eat it as a whole main meal, though. I suppose you could, but I would prefer to serve it as a side dish!
I’m not a pasta person at all, but I love orzo. I think my brain thinks it’s rice. Anyway, this looks great for the (hopefully warmer) upcoming months!
Thanks, Chrissy! I’m the opposite to you. I prefer pasta to rice, but I especially like orzo. You’re right that this is great for spring/summer. Just need to get myself in the mood a bit early!
Cathleen @ A Taste Of Madness says
I can’t believe I have never made anything with orzo before! This looks so good!
Hi, Kathleen! Do try orzo some time – I bet you’ll really like it!