This pesto orzo salad is a simple combo of rice-shaped pasta, homemade basil pesto, roasted vegetables, crispy chickpeas and fried feta. It is beautifully balanced, packed with nutrients, perfect for meal-prepped lunches or an easy weeknight meal.

If you like this recipe then you’ll also love my fried feta nourish bowls because well…fried feta.

Round plate with pesto orzo salad, roasted vegetables, fried feta, microgreens and pine nuts

A few weeks ago I received a comment on TikTok that said “you must be in your fried feta era.” Never were truer words folks! There is something so incredible about the slightly crunchy, slightly melty, salty feta planks that take any meal from pretty good to SHUT THE FRONT DOOR AMAZING. Keep reading for all my tips for how to make fried feta turn out perfect every time!

Also, I am up to my ears in basil right now. We have it growing in our indoor hydroponic garden and outside as well. Late summer perfection. Homemade pesto is a fabulously delicious excuse to use up lots of fresh basil and it is so simple to make- all you need is a food processor (I loooove this one, she is bae) and a few simple ingredients.

This is a recipe I come back to again and again and make slight modifications each time based on what I’m feelin’. I’m calling this a “pesto orzo pasta salad”- don’t get mad at me for calling it a salad lol. It’s like a warm main dish salad ya feel me? It is so versatile- take this idea and make it your own!

Close up shot of fried feta, roasted sweet potatoes, pesto and broccoli

Why you’ll love this recipe:

The flavor: my GOODNESS. One of the primary reasons I chose to become a registered dietitian was to help encourage and demonstrate to others that healthy food can be FLAVORFUL food. A meal that includes veggies, garbanzo beans and a grain could be bland but by adding fresh pesto, frying up some feta and using a cooking method like roasting at high heat we are giving our meal irresistible flavor, texture and visual interest.

The balance: this recipe includes lots of non-starchy vegetables, plant-based protein, energizing carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats. It is a fabulous vegetarian main dish and very filling. However, the protein does come from plant-based sources which does make the overall protein content of this meal slightly lower than a meal with an animal-based source of protein. I quite enjoy it as is, but I really can’t think of a protein this wouldn’t pair well with.

The potential: choose your journey my friends, choose.your.journey. This recipe is incredible as written but there is so much potential to make it your own- add chicken, fish or pork for more protein, swap out the orzo for wild rice to make it gluten-free, use sunflower seeds instead of cashews to make it tree nut free, add whatever vegetables you love, etc. So many options!

Baking sheet with sweet potatoes, broccoli florets and garbanzo beans

What you need to make it:

Sweet potatoes: 1 large or 2 small. Be sure to use a good-quality chef’s knife to chop these bad boys, as sweet potatoes are notoriously hard!

Broccoli: fun fact- I literally hate chopping heads of cauliflower or broccoli so I always buy the bags of pre-cut florets. It can be a great little time-saving hack but either way- about 10oz broccoli florets or 1 large head of broccoli.

Microgreens: optional, but if you can find them, microgreens provide a big boost of nutrients and fiber as well as visual and textural interest. They will be in the produce section, likely next to the refrigerated fresh herbs.

Chickpeas: also called garbanzo beans, I buy the canned variety (but you can also use dried and soak/cook yourself) and rinse and pat dry before using.

Feta cheese: it’s very important to buy the block of feta, not the pre-crumbled kind. Crumbled feta will make our whole fried feta mission a bit more complicated. I love buying the block feta from Costco, it’s the best price there!

Cornstarch: cornstarch coats the outside of the feta and creates a crispy exterior while preventing the feta from melting entirely. You can also use arrowroot starch.

Extra virgin olive oil: good-quality extra virgin olive oil gives this recipe a Mediterranean flair and is used for both the feta and in the pesto. It provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants and contributes significantly to the overall flavor.

Seasonings: choose whichever spices or seasoning blends you love for roasted vegetables. I like salt, pepper and green goddess seasoning (from Trader Joe’s) but if you don’t have green goddess substitute garlic powder.

Orzo: orzo is a small, rice-shaped pasta and can be found in the pasta aisle of most grocery stores. Couscous, brown or wild rice or quinoa also work great for this recipe.

Cashews: pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts but I’ve found you can use almost any nut to make a great pesto! I love cashews or walnuts as the base.

Garlic: use fresh whole garlic cloves if you can!

Basil: you will need about 3 cups fresh basil so buy the larger (3oz) container of basil at the store or a big basil plant (like the kind at Trader Joe’s!) If you don’t have enough basil you can supplement with another leafy green like spinach or arugula or even another herb like parsley or cilantro.

Lemon: fresh citrus adds a zip to the pesto and a final squeeze of lemon juice brings the entire pesto orzo salad to life!

Salt and pepper: of course, seasoning!

Pine nuts: optional, for serving

Food processor bowl with homemade pesto

How to make:

Slice the feta into planks and slice each plank in half to make little squares. (refer to video for a visual) Coat the squares in cornstarch, lightly patting off the excess. Place them on a parchment-lined plate and put them in the freezer while you prep the other components. Freezing helps prevent the feta from melting completely when you fry it.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Chop the sweet potatoes and broccoli and place them in an even layer on a lined baking sheet (I use these silicone baking mats) Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to the baking sheet. Drizzle with about 1 tablespoon olive oil and add seasonings. Use your hands to toss, ensuring all of the veggies and chickpeas get evenly coated in seasoning and oil. Roast for 25 minutes until vegetables are crisp tender and browning on the top.

While the veggies are roasting make the pesto. Add the cashews, garlic, basil, lemon, parmesan, salt and pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Process for 30 seconds until everything is finely minced. With the motor running, stream in the olive oil and water, until desired consistency is reached. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt, pepper or lemon, if needed.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat. When the oil is hot remove the feta from the freezer and add it to the pan, taking care not to crowd the pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes until feta is golden brown and crispy. Using a silicone spatula (don’t use tongs!), flip the feta and fry for another 1-2 minutes. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate.

Glass bowl with pesto orzo and crispy garbanzo beans

Cook orzo according to package instructions, reserve ½ cup pasta water. Toss cooked orzo with ½ the pesto and the pasta water, stirring until well combined. Toss in the crispy chickpeas.

Serve the pesto orzo and chickpeas with a big spoonful roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes, microgreens, chunks of fried feta, extra dollops of pesto and a sprinkle of pine nuts.

Tips for Perfectly Fried Feta:

  1. A good-quality nonstick pan– if the feta sticks to the pan, it’s game over. So use a ceramic-coated cast iron pan that can withstand high heat and maintain nonstick integrity.
  2. Enough oil- make sure there is a very thin layer of olive oil covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Two tablespoons is usually the perfect amount for me.
  3. High heat- we want the feta to crisp up and brown without melting which means we want to reduce the amount of time it’s on the heat. High heat will provide maximum color/crispiness while maintaining the texture and shape of the feta. And remember, do NOT add the feta until the oil is hot!
  4. Work quickly- as previously mentioned, we want to work quickly so the feta isn’t sitting in a hot pan for an extended amount of time. Add the feta, let crisp and quickly flip all the pieces. Let cook another minute or so and then quickly remove to a paper-towel lined plate.

Variation Ideas:

Kid-friendly: deconstructed the components and serve the cooked orzo, roasted vegetables, roasted chickpeas and fried feta separately. Offer dollops of pesto on whichever portions of the food your kiddo is willing to try it on!

Make it higher in protein: serve this orzo pesto salad as a side dish for a protein like chicken, salmon, white fish, shrimp, pork tenderloin, Italian sausage or steak. For more plant-based protein, fry up some tofu with the feta!

Gluten-free: Substitute wild rice, brown rice, jasmine rice or quinoa for the orzo.

Dairy-free: omit the fried feta (sad day) and either omit the parmesan or substitute nutritional yeast in the pesto.

Nut-free: use pine nuts or sunflower seeds instead of cashews for the pesto

Different cheeses: try with fresh mozzarella cheese or mozzarella pearls (for a caprese orzo salad vibe) or goat cheese!

Switch up the veggies based on the season!: use zucchini, bell pepper and juicy cherry tomatoes in the summer, beets and red onion in the winter and asparagus and green onions in the spring! I also love adding a big handful of baby spinach or arugula at the end if I don’t have microgreens!

Round plate with pesto orzo salad, roasted vegetables, fried feta, microgreens and pine nuts

FAQs:

Can I use store-bought pesto?

Yep! For a time-saving shortcut, you can absolutely use store-bought pesto for this recipe.

How do I store the leftovers?

Store the assembled dish in an airtight container up to four days. Alternatively, you can store the pesto orzo/chickpeas and roasted vegetables in separate containers and fry the feta when ready to serve.

Is this gluten-free?

No. To make it gluten-free use gluten-free orzo (like this cassava-based one) or use a different grain entirely like wild rice or quinoa.

My feta melted last time I tried to make it, help!?

Refer to my section above on how to perfectly fry feta!

Should this dish be served hot or room temperature?

Either! The actual pesto orzo portion is great hot, room temperature and even as a cold pasta salad situation. But I do love the roasted veggies and fried feta served hot.

If you love this pesto orzo salad recipe, you’ll love these other simple dinner ideas:

Watch how to make:

Alright my friends, go forth! It is time to enter your fried feta era. 👊🏼

Print
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Pesto orzo salad with roasted broccoli, sweet potatoes and chickpeas with fried feta

Pesto Orzo Salad with Fried Feta

5 Stars 4 Stars 3 Stars 2 Stars 1 Star 5 from 2 reviews
  • Author: Erica
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: 6 servings 1x
  • Category: Main Dish
  • Method: Roast + Fry
  • Cuisine: American
  • Diet: Vegetarian

Description

Big chunks of fried feta, perfectly crispy broccoli and sweet potatoes, crunchy chickpeas and soft orzo wrapped up with a luscious pesto hug- you are going to LOVE this pesto orzo salad!


Ingredients

Units Scale

Feta

Salad

  • 2 small sweet potatoes, cubed
  • 10oz broccoli florets (1 large head), cut into small florets
  • 1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 3/4 teaspoon each salt, pepper, garlic powder or green goddess seasoning
  • 1 1/2 cup orzo, uncooked
  • Microgreens, optional
  • Pine nuts, optional, for serving

Pesto

  • 1/2 cup roasted cashews
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 3 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cold water

Instructions

Feta (part one)

Slice the feta into planks and slice each plank in half to make little squares. Coat the squares in cornstarch, lightly patting off the excess. Place them on a parchment-lined plate and put them in the freezer while you prep the other components. Freezing helps prevent the feta from melting completely when you fry it.

Veggies

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Place broccoli and sweet potatoes in an even layer on the baking sheet. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to the baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and add seasonings. Use your hands to toss, ensuring all the veggies and chickpeas get evenly coated in seasoning and oil. Roast for 25 minutes until vegetables are crisp tender and browning on the top.

Pesto

While the veggies are roasting make the pesto. Add the cashews, garlic, basil, lemon, parmesan, salt and pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Process for 30 seconds until everything is finely minced. With the motor running, stream in the olive oil and water, until desired consistency is reached. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt, pepper or lemon, if needed.

Feta (part two)

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat. When the oil is hot remove the feta from the freezer and add it to the pan, taking care not to crowd the pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes until feta is golden brown and crispy. Using a silicone spatula (don’t use tongs!), flip the feta and fry for another 1-2 minutes. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate.

Orzo

Cook orzo in a large pot of salted water until al dente or according to package instructions. Reserve ½ cup pasta water. Toss cooked orzo with ½ the pesto and the pasta water, stirring until well combined. Toss in the crispy chickpeas.

Assembly

Serve the pesto orzo and chickpeas with a big spoonful roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes, microgreens, chunks of fried feta, extra dollops of pesto and a sprinkle of pine nuts.

This is a good day.


Notes

Refer to blog post above for ingredient substitution ideas, tips for perfectly fried feta, FAQs and more.

Nutritional information is an estimate and may vary slightly based on brand of ingredients used.

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 1/6 recipe
  • Calories: 481
  • Sugar: 5.5 g
  • Sodium: 1100.8 mg
  • Fat: 25.5 g
  • Carbohydrates: 47.4 g
  • Protein: 18.8 g
  • Cholesterol: 38.5 mg

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