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Orzo Pesto Salad

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This quick and easy orzo pesto salad is loaded with fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. A perfect light lunch or side dish!
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 9 minutes
Total Time: 39 minutes
Orzo pesto salad.

Orzo pesto salad is one of my favorite summer salads. It’s so easy to make and gets a really refreshing lift from fresh lemon zest and juice, and fragrant basil from the garden. I love the added flavor of toasted pine nuts, but they can be expensive, so I have a list of substitutions below.

You can serve this pasta salad as a meal topped with rotisserie chicken or grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp (with cheddar chive biscuits on the side, YUM), but I love it mostly as a side dish with a Nova Scotia lobster roll or fresh lobster cakes.

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Ingredients For Orzo Pesto Salad

Ingredients to make this recipe.

Ingredient Notes

  • Basil Pesto: You can use storebought or make your own homemade basil pesto.
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Leave them whole or slice them in half.
  • Fresh Basil: Ten grams of fresh basil can be expensive at the grocery store. I usually make this dish in the summer when I grow my own basil in the garden.
  • Fresh Mozzarella: I love fresh mozzarella, but some of the stuff you get at the store has zero flavor. If you have a local cheese maker and you can afford it it really does make a difference.
  • Lemon: I recommend only using fresh lemon. Bottled lemon juice just doesn’t have the same freshness, plus you really need the zest in the salad.
  • Orzo: Orzo is a pasta shaped like large grains of rice. It cooks quickly and has a tender yet firm texture, making it a versatile base for salads, soups, and side dishes.
  • Pine Nuts: Pine nuts are small, teardrop-shaped seeds harvested from pine cones. When raw, they have a buttery, slightly sweet flavor and a creamy texture that becomes rich and nutty when toasted.
  • Red Onion: Adds a mild crunchy bite and a small splash of color.

It’s important to note that when making substitutions in recipes, the texture and flavor may be slightly different. However, these substitutes are the best options for changing the original recipe.

Ingredient Substitutions

  • Basil Pesto: You can use arugula pesto or spinach pesto (or both since I have a recipe for spinach arugual pesto).
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Grape tomatoes or diced regular tomatoes work just as well.
  • Fresh Mozzarella: Feta cheese or goat cheese can be used for a tangier flavor.
  • Lemon: Lime juice or white wine vinegar can provide a similar acidity.
  • Olive Oil: Avocado oil or grapeseed oil are good alternatives.
  • Orzo: Pearl couscous or small pasta shapes like ditalini can be used instead.
  • Pine Nuts: Toasted slivered almonds or sunflower seeds can replace pine nuts.
  • Red Onion: Shallots or green onions offer a similar mild bite.

Recipe Variations

Try any of the following for a twist on this orzo pesto salad recipe:

  • Arugula, Kale, or Spinach: Stir in 1 ounce of your favorite greens.
  • Avocado: Add diced avocado before serving. Do not stir it directly into the salad as it will brown quickly.
  • Artichoke Hearts: Mix in marinated artichoke hearts.
  • Capers: Sprinkle capers in to taste. To take them to the next level, fry them in a little olive oil for about 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are crispy and start to pop open.
  • Chickpeas: Mix in drained, rinsed chickpeas.
  • Cucumber: Diced cucumber is super refreshing in this pesto orzo.
  • Feta Cheese: Crumble up to 1 cup of fets and stir it into the orzo.
  • Grilled Chicken or Shrimp: Top with grilled chicken or shrimp to make it a meal.
  • Olives: Pitted kalamata olives are terrific here.
  • Peas: Peas, especially if fresh from the garden, will add a pop of colour and freshness.
  • Prosciutto or Bacon: Add thinly sliced prosciutto or cooked crumbled bacon.
  • Red Bell Pepper: Add diced red bell pepper for extra crunch.
  • Sun-Dried Tomatoes: Chop up some sun-dried tomatoes for a more concentrated tomato flavor.
  • Zucchini: Add grilled zucchini for a seasonal note.

Use the JUMP TO RECIPE button at the top of this post, or scroll to the bottom to see the PRINTABLE recipe card with ingredient measurements and complete instructions.

How To Make Orzo Pesto Salad

Process shots 1 & 2.

STEP 1: Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet until golden and fragrant.

STEP 2: Zest and juice the lemon directly into a large bowl. Add the pesto and olive oil.

Process shots 3 & 4.

STEP 3: Whisk the dressing well to combine.

STEP 4: Add cooked and cooled orzo to the bowl.

Process shots 5 & 6.

STEP 5: Stir the orzo until all of the pasta is well-coated in lemon basil dressing.

STEP 6: Add the cooled pine nuts and cherry tomatoes to the bowl. Tear the mozzarella and basil into small pieces and add them directly to the bowl. Finely dice the red onion and add it to the orzo, then stir until the ingredients are well distributed. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for later.

Expert Tips

1. Taste as you go and don’t be afraid to make increase or decrease ingredient amounts to suit your own preference.
2. I find this orzo pasta salad tastes better after resting in the fridge overnight.
3. Use the best quality mozzarella you can afford or find.

Recipe Notes

  • Keep a close eye on the pine nuts while toasting, as they can burn quickly. Stir often until they are golden and fragrant.
  • Whisk together the lemon juice, zest, pesto, and olive oil before adding the orzo to ensure even distribution of flavors.
  • Tearing the mozzarella and basil instead of chopping helps preserve their textures and flavors.
  • For best results, let the salad chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to meld together.

Storage

  • Store any leftover pesto orzo in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Give the salad a good stir before serving again, as the dressing may settle at the bottom.
Orzo salad with pesto.

Did you make this orzo pesto pasta salad? Please rate the recipe and tell me how it went in the comments below. Also, stay in touch with me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest to see more delicious food and recipes!

Printable Recipe Card

Orzo pesto salad.

Orzo Pesto Salad

Author: Kelly Neil
This quick and easy orzo pesto salad is loaded with fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. A perfect light lunch or side dish!
5 from 4 votes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 9 minutes
Total Time 39 minutes
Course Sides
Cuisine European / Canadian
Servings 8 servings
Calories 316 kcal

Special Equipment

  • Measuring cups and spoons or digital kitchen scale
  • Large pot
  • Rubber spatula or wooden spoon
  • Colander
  • Large mixing bowl
Need Metric Measurements?Use the button options below to toggle between US cups and Metric grams.

Ingredients
 
 

  • 1 ½ cups orzo, uncooked
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • 1 medium lemon
  • ½ cup basil pesto
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 ounces cherry tomatoes
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella
  • ½ cup fresh basil
  • ¼ cup red onion

Instructions
 

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the orzo according to the package instructions. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water until cool, drain again, and set aside.
  • While the orzo is cooking, place a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast until golden and fragrant, stirring often to prevent burning, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the toasted pine nuts to a heatproof dish to cool.
  • Zest and juice the lemon directly into a large bowl. Add the pesto and olive oil and whisk well to combine. Add the cooled orzo to the bowl and stir until the orzo is well-coated with dressing.
  • Add the cooled pine nuts and cherry tomatoes to the bowl. Tear the mozzarella and basil into small pieces and add them directly to the bowl. Finely dice the red onion and add it to the orzo, then stir until the ingredients are well distributed. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for later.

Recipe Notes

  • Keep a close eye on the pine nuts while toasting, as they can burn quickly. Stir often until they are golden and fragrant.
  • Whisk together the lemon juice, zest, pesto, and olive oil before adding the orzo to ensure even distribution of flavors.
  • Tearing the mozzarella and basil instead of chopping helps preserve their textures and flavors.
  • For best results, let the salad chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to meld together.

Storage

  • Store any leftover pesto orzo in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Give the salad a good stir before serving again, as the dressing may settle at the bottom.

Nutrition

Serving: 1servingCalories: 316kcalCarbohydrates: 28gProtein: 12gFat: 18gSaturated Fat: 5gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 24mgSodium: 336mgPotassium: 207mgFiber: 2gSugar: 3gVitamin A: 748IUVitamin C: 14mgCalcium: 187mgIron: 1mg
Did you make this recipe?Let me know on Instagram @kellyneildotcom or tag #kellyneil!

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10 Comments

  1. LOVE this salad! Pesto is my summer go-to when I’m making pasta salads. Herbs in my garden are so bright and fresh right now…I’ll have to give this salad a try!

  2. Beautiful Orzo salad Kelly! Interesting use of spinach in the Pesto..must have added a nice flavour and texture too..Summer fresh recipe!

  3. You just reminded me that orzo is one of my favourite pastas and so underrated. It’s now on my grocery list.

  4. Wow…I love everything about this salad! The pesto, the fresh mozzarella, the tomatoes, the orzo, the spinach…it just sounds wonderful! Thank you for sharing this!

  5. This is the perfect summer salad, we have so many tomatoes in our garden (just waiting for three to ripen) and tons and tons of herbs, so we will be making this to enjoy outside on the deck!

  6. Caprese-meets-pesto is something I didn’t know I needed in my life, yet here we are, and I couldn’t be happier. Lol. This is a fantastic idea (and a beautiful execution, I have to say). The spinach arugula pesto sounds like a great addition too – I’m always a fan of trying out pesto variations!

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