Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chicken Orzo Salad with Cranberries and Feta

Meet my new favorite meal to eat any time of the day. I would be unable to turn down the leftovers even if they were offered me for breakfast because, my friends, this dish is just so damn delicious.

There is a sweet story behind this dish. While we were in the thick of our kitchen remodel, the phase where I had no sink, no dishwasher, no cupboards, no countertops, and piles of sawdust and nails littered about everywhere, a really sweet friend of mine called me up out of the blue and told me that she was bringing me dinner that night. Now, this friend has a full life of her own - three kids, one an infant, and a husband busy completing his residency program in another city, She is a busy, busy woman but felt compelled to offer me a sweet act of kindness in the middle of our crazy, hectic remodeling project. I almost collapsed with gratitude. We had been subsisting on pizza, ramen noodles, and microwave dinners, so a bonafide home cooked meal sounded downright celestial! I was so touched that she wanted to do something so generous for our family.

And the meal she brought was this wonderfully light, tasty, and completely addicting Chicken Orzo Salad. This meal hits all the notes: part salad and part pasta it is salty from the feta cheese, savory from the chicken, sweet from the cranberries, and just a tiny bit bitter from the addition of the arugula. The whole dish is tied together with a scrumptious lemon-balsamic vinaigrette with just a touch of honey for added flavor and sweetness. Oh my. This recipe catapulted to the top of my favorites list. It can be served warm, chilled, or at room temperature. All ways promise a perfectly satisfying meal.

A picture of the puppy just because puppies are cute!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Jessica for this wonderful recipe! This is what I will be cooking for myself when Paul is out of town on all his work trips. Normally, it's cold cereal and yogurt for me, but this is so much better. I hope you make it and enjoy it as much as we do.

A note on the chicken, if you roast chicken breasts for the salad, I highly, highly recommend brining them first. It both seasons the chicken and helps seal in moisture to ensure that it does not dry out in the oven. It's almost a guaranteed way of ensuring juicy, moist chicken. Just combine four cups of water with a scant 1/4 cup of kosher salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk vigorously until the sugar and salt have dissolved and then submerge your chicken in the brine. Refrigerate for at least one hour, but no more than four. When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the brine, pat lightly with paper towels to remove any excess moisture, and then season with pepper, if desired. Roast at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 165 degrees. That's it! It's easy and makes extremely moist, tasty chicken every single time. Nothing ruins a salad more than dry, tough chicken.

Chicken Orzo Salad with Cranberries and Feta
from my friend Jessica

For the Dressing:
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey

For the Salad:
1 pound orzo
2-4 cups sliced chicken (brined and prepared as stated above or use rotisserie chicken!)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
4-6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup toasted walnuts or pine nuts (Optional)
Handful of chopped fresh parsley (Both Jessica and I omit this)
Generous fistful of baby arugula, chopped (Not a fan of arugula? Use spinach!)

Cook orzo to al dente according to the packaged directions. Drain immediately. Toss with a bit of olive oil (I used about a tablespoons or so) and then toss with half the dressing. Let cool for about 10 minutes and then add all the rest of the ingredients and the other half of the dressing. Let chill or serve. If serving later, you can choose to add the greens right before serving if you don't want them too wilted. Either way is delicious.

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