I’ve been really into light and fresh pastas and grain salads this summer, and this Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad just might be my favorite one yet.
First, it uses orzo, which is a very underrated but very tasty pasta. Two, it features lemons in three different ways: lemon juice, lemon zest, and preserved lemons (optional but delicious and recommended). Three, it practically screams summer! with its fresh lemon and basil flavors. Finally, it’s packed with incredible gourmet flavors and wonderful textures but is quite simple to make.
It’s the kind of pasta salad that will get you excited, impress your summer guests, and keep you coming back for another bowl!
PS: If orzo isn’t your jam, then consider this unreal Vegan Pasta Salad made with a romesco-inspired sauce or this 30-minute tahini pasta.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
Gourmet flavors but easy. There’s nothing complicated in this recipe but the flavor pairings are exquisite! Delightfully lemony from three types of lemon, herbaceous from a generous amount of a basil gremolata, a buttery crunch from pine nuts, an intense sweet-tart chewiness from sundried tomatoes, silky baby spinach, and warm nutty spiced chickpeas.
Perfect for summer entertaining. The best kinds of dishes to serve your guests are those that are impressive but secretly easy to make. This orzo pasta salad fits the bill – it feels and tastes fancy but is surprisingly easy to make.
Versatile. Serve this orzo warm or at room temperature and/or serve leftovers cold for a more traditional “pasta salad.”
Light but satisfying. Thanks to chickpeas and pine nuts, this dish feels a bit heartier than your standard pasta salad but is still light enough for summer dining. Great for lunch, a light dinner, or as a side dish.
If you’re interested in light but satisfying summer salads that are anything but boring, be sure to check out these recipes too!
- Actually Good Quinoa Salad: Quinoa has never been this exciting (or crispy!).
- Grilled Corn Salad: 10 ingredients and less than 30 minutes, it’s packed with summer corn flavor and a little heat.
- Roasted Beet and Fennel Salad: the tastiest way to enjoy beets and fennel, this gourmet salad also features crispy walnut bread crumbs, lots of fresh herbs, and an easy citrus vinaigrette.
- Herbed Potato Salad: Just as creamy as classic potato salad but so much better for you and more flavorful!
Gather your ingredients.
Rinse, drain and thoroughly dry the chickpeas. Heat a tiny bit of oil in a large frying pan and pan-fry the chickpeas. Cook undisturbed for a few minutes before tossing, and continue cooking until blistered in some spots.
Add the oregano, thyme, onion powder, paprika, and salt.
Toss the chickpeas in the spices and cook for 2-4 minutes until nicely golden brown and aromatic.
Chop the basil and mix together with lemon zest, 1 clove of grated garlic, and flaky salt.
Warm the extra virgin olive oil in the large frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the sliced garlic and cook for 4 to 6 minutes until just starting to turn golden.
Add the chopped preserved lemon (if using) and Aleppo pepper (or crushed red pepper). Cook for 1 minute, swirling the pan often.
Add about 1/4 cup of the hot pasta water from the cooked orzo to the pan and whisk to combine. Add in the hot cooked orzo, lemon juice, and sundried tomatoes, tossing to combine. Add more pasta water as needed to bring the sauce together.
Add in the chopped baby spinach and toss until wilted.
Add the spiced chickpeas and toss again.
Finally, add in the basil-lemon zest topping and toasted pine nuts and gently toss. Season to taste with salt or pepper as needed.
If using homemade preserved lemons, you’ll need a few weeks of advance planning (because preserved lemons take about 3 weeks to ferment). I have a detailed post on how to make preserved lemons and how to use them :) In this recipe, they add a bold lemon flavor and a background note of umami that takes this pasta salad over the top.
Obviously, if you already have some preserved lemons in your fridge, you’re ready to go. You can buy preserved lemons at well-stocked grocery stores (you can try Whole Foods, Ralph’s, and even Walmart), Middle Eastern grocery stores, specialty stores like Sur La Table, or online (affiliate link).
While I love the preserved lemons in this recipe, you can also omit them. See more in the “Substitutes” section below.
When frying the garlic in olive oil, add the garlic once the oil is warm (don’t wait until it’s hot). And be sure to use medium-low heat and stir frequently. You want the garlic just to turn lightly golden before adding the preserved lemon and chili flakes. You do not want the garlic to brown (it can taste bitter).
Be sure to to add the cooked orzo to the sauce while still hot. Dressing the orzo in the lemon-olive oil sauce while still warm helps it to absorb every nugget of flavor!
To toast pine nuts perfectly, heat a dry frying pan over medium heat. Allow the pan to heat up for a few minutes to get hot. Then add the pine nuts and shake the pan frequently until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes.
For the most flavorful results, use sundried tomatoes packed in oil, not dry-packed tomatoes (the latter are not nearly as flavorful and are dryer/tougher).
Substitutes / Variations
Not a fan of baby spinach? You can substitute thinly shredded kale or chopped baby kale. It will take a little longer to wilt than spinach and won’t have that same silky texture though. I don’t recommend a bitter green like arugula (I tried it, it powered the dish).
While I think basil is fabulous in this orzo pasta salad, it would also be very tasty with half basil and half parsley, or a little bit of fresh dill thrown in.
Want to add more veggies? Here are some ideas, but don’t go too heavy on the raw veggies because they won’t have enough dressing to get coated.
- Blanched broccoli florets, asparagus, or green beans (keep the florets and/or pieces small since orzo is small)
- Grilled or roasted zucchini, summer squash, or eggplant
- Roasted red bell peppers (homemade or jarred).
- Shredded carrots
- Finely diced red/yellow/orange bell peppers or cucumbers
- Thinly shaved red onions
Other variations try try:
- Double the amount of spiced chickpeas for more protein
- Toss in a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of hemp seeds for more protein
- Add in some vegan feta or goat cheese (I like Violife vegan feta and Spero Foods goat cheese)
Frequently Asked Questions
Omit the preserved lemon in step 6 (when frying the garlic). For extra lemon flavor, I recommend adding an additional 1/2 tablespoon of lemon zest when you add the orzo in step 7 or when you add the basil topping in step 8.
If you have access to gluten-free orzo (affiliate link), you can use that! Or, you can try a short-grain gluten-free pasta, such as elbow, orechiette or ditalini, if you can find that.
While I am a huge fan of the pine nuts in this recipe, if you’re allergic to nuts, omit them and try toasted sunflower seeds or pepitas instead.
It should stay good for 3 to 5 days. I prefer to eat it at room temperature (I think the flavors carry better), but it’s also great cold.
If you try this summery Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad and love it, please be sure to rate and review it below!
Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad
- 12 ounces (340g) orzo
- 1 ¼ cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves (20g), chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, 5 cloves thinly sliced and 1 clove grated or crushed through a press
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest*
- Flaky or coarse sea salt
- ¼ cup (56 mL) extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon peel (optional; see note below)*
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes)**
- Kosher salt or sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 8 oil-packed sundried tomatoes (48g), chopped
- 3 cups (60-70g) baby spinach, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup (32g) pine nuts, toasted***
- 1 (15-ounce/425g) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon onion powder
- Make the Spiced Chickpeas. Transfer the chickpeas to a clean dish towel or a layer of paper towels and gently pat dry as much as you can without smushing them.
- Heat a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat with the 2 teaspoons oil and spread the oil out with a paper towel to evenly distribute it. Once hot, add the chickpeas and spread out in a single layer. Cook undisturbed for 2 to 3 minutes to allow some browning. Toss and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until chickpeas are golden brown and blistered in spots.
- Add the salt, oregano, paprika, thyme, and onion powder to the chickpeas, and toss well to coat the chickpeas. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes to allow flavors to blend, then take off the heat and wipe out the pan.
- Meanwhile, cook the orzo. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the orzo and salt generously. Cook the orzo until just al dente (don’t cook until soft; it will continue cooking in the sauce). Drain the orzo in a colander fitted over a bowl, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
- Make the basil gremolata. In a small bowl, combine the chopped basil, the 1 clove of grated garlic, 1 tablespoon of lemon zest, and several pinches of flaky salt. Set aside.
- Heat the ¼ cup olive oil in the same frying pan used for the chickpeas over medium-low heat. Once the oil is warm (but not too hot), add the 5 cloves of sliced garlic and cook, swirling the pan or stirring frequently and separating the slices, for 4 to 6 minutes, until the garlic just turns golden (don't wait until it browns). Add the preserved lemon peel and Aleppo pepper or chili flakes and cook for another 1 minute, swirling the pan often. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Add half of the pasta water to the frying pan and whisk to combine. Add in the hot cooked orzo, lemon juice, and sundried tomatoes, tossing to combine (with tongs or a sturdy silicone spatula). Add the remaining pasta water, as needed to bring the sauce together.
- Add in the spinach and toss gently until wilted. Add in the spiced chickpeas and toss again. Take off the heat. Add the basil gremolata and toasted pine nuts and toss gently. Taste for seasonings, adding lemon juice or salt as needed.
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