On Your Table: Orzo Risotto with Asparagus and Shrimp

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By Cathy BranciaroliFood Correspondent, The Times

Asparagus and shrimp risotto made with orzo instead of rice yields a quick main course bursting with spring flavors.

Just as the weather is finally warming up, local asparagus is starting to come into farmers markets and supermarket shelves. The sight of their bright green spears makes everyone’s heart sing at the end of a long winter of root vegetables, homey casseroles and comfort food.  Heaving a deep sigh of relief to at last escape winter’s clutches, waste no time in celebrating this versatile spring vegetable whether in a breakfast frittata, a tempting quiche or a tasty dinner main course.  

On the subject of whether fat or thin asparagus spears are more preferable, there is considerable debate.  Pencil thin spears are marketed as gourmet and as more delicate or tender than their thicker cousins.  But this isn’t really the case.  Thinner does not mean younger or more tender.  Both sizes taste equally sweet, nutty, and grassy.

Thickness does matter in terms of the cooking method.  Thicker stalks are better for broiling and roasting because they will stand up to the intense dry heat that would quickly shrivel skinnier spears.  Quick-cooking thinner spears are good candidates for steaming and stir-frying.  So choose the size that best suits your cooking method.

In honor of asparagus and the belated coming of spring, we served up a light, refreshing, simple dish last weekend that combines some of my favorite spring ingredients – shrimp and asparagus – in a flavorful mock risotto.

Many of us think of risotto as a dish requiring long periods of continuous stirring in order to achieve its creamy consistency and tenderness.  Not so.  Orzo pasta makes an excellent rice substitute.  Orzo is Italian for “barley,” but that name merely refers to its size and shape.  The pasta’s shape, size and texture resemble grains of rice and is most often used in soups, pilafs or other rice-based dishes.

Using orzo instead of rice vastly hastens risotto preparation.  The pasta is cooked al dente in just a few minutes.  The other ingredients can be sautéed while the pasta is cooking and then the entire ensemble is stirred together.  It comes together quickly and tastes equally as good as the traditional method.

This is a dish that is quick and easy for weeknight suppers, can easily be expanded to feed a crowd, and looks gorgeous!  Since the true season for asparagus in this area is a short one it’s time to enjoy this spring delicacy before those first local bundles fly away.

Orzo Risotto with Asparagus and Shrimp


1 box orzo (16 oz)

10 oz asparagus spears

½ lb shelled and deveined medium shrimp

4 tbs unsalted butter

1 medium onion chopped fine

2 garlic cloves chopped fine

¼ cup white wine

¾ cup chicken broth or vegetable broth for vegetarian dish

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

2 tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley

Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to season



Roast asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil in a 400 degree oven for 6-8 minutes.  Set aside and cut into 1 in pieces, reserving tops for garnish.  Melt butter under med-high heat in a heavy skillet until the butter begins to brown.  Add shrimp seasoned with salt, pepper and hot flakes.  Cook over medium heat till just pink, about 1 minute per side.  Remove with a slotted spoon.  Sauté onion and garlic in the brown butter.

Prepare orzo in boiling salted water, undercooking for about 7-8 minutes till al dente.  Drain and add to onion/garlic in skillet and stir till coated with the butter and is toasty.  Pour the broth and wine into the orzo and cook over medium heat, stirring, till creamy and liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes.  Check seasoning.

Stir in the asparagus and shrimp under medium heat until heated through, just a minute or two.  Add the cheese and parsley.  Transfer to serving bowl or individual portions.  Serve sprinkled with more parmesan.


Cathy Branciaroli also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her award-winning blog Delaware Girl Eats

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