Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad

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A great addition to your summer menu, this Lemon Orzo Pasta salad is gourmet but simple to make. Featuring orzo, three types of lemon, spiced chickpeas, chewy sundried tomatoes, buttery pine nuts, and a basil gremolata, it has all the best of summer flavors and textures.
Prep 25 minutes
Cook 20 minutes
Total 45 minutes
5 from 121 votes

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.

lemon orzo pasta salad with chickpeas in saute pan on green surface

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.”

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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!

lemon orzo pasta salad on a tray on a dark green surface

Step-by-Step Instructions

Gather your ingredients.

lemon orzo pasta salad - labeled ingredients in bowls

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.

tossing pan-fried chickpeas in a saute pan

Chop the basil and mix together with lemon zest, 1 clove of grated garlic, and flaky salt.

chopped basil with lemon zest, garlic and 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.

lemon orzo pasta salad in saute pan with fresh basil and pine nuts on top

Expert Tips

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).

closeup of lemon orzo pasta salad on a tray with a spoon

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)
closeup of lemon orzo pasta salad on white tray on dark green backdrop

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I make this orzo pasta salad without preserved lemon?

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.

Can I make this recipe gluten-free?

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.

Can I make this recipe nut-free?

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.

How long does this pasta salad stay good in the fridge?

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

5 from 121 votes
A great addition to your summer menu, this Lemon Orzo Pasta salad is gourmet but simple to make. Featuring orzo, three types of lemon, spiced chickpeas, chewy sundried tomatoes, buttery pine nuts, and a basil gremolata, it has all the best of summer flavors and textures.
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Cuisine: Italian-Inspired, Mediterranean
Diet Vegan
Serving size: 4 to 6 people

Ingredients

  • 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***

Spiced Chickpeas

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

Notes

* If you don’t have access to preserved lemons or didn’t make them, omit the preserved lemon peel. 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.
** Aleppo pepper is less spicy than crushed red pepper flakes, so if using the latter, use 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon, depending on your spice tolerance. 
*** To toast pine nuts, heat a small or medium frying pan over medium heat for a few minutes. Once hot, add the pine nuts and toast golden brown, shaking the pan frequently to prevent burning but not too often so the nuts get some color, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Calories: 432kcal | Carbohydrates: 57g | Protein: 13g | Fat: 18g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 10g | Sodium: 628mg | Potassium: 510mg | Fiber: 7g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 1815IU | Vitamin C: 18mg | Calcium: 74mg | Iron: 3mg

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197 comments on Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad

  1. Karrie

    5 stars
    I just made this for my husband and I. It was absolutely delicious. We went vegan about 2 years ago and every time I make something new my husband looks at me like he is going to hate it and then I tell him “It’s a Rainbow Plant Life lady’ recipe and he smiles because he know he will love it. I can’t wait for your new cook book to come out. We love all of your recipes Nisha!!
    Thanks,
    Karrie

  2. Janeal

    5 stars
    Soo soo good! This will def be my new go-to for a quick, flavorful meal! All of the ingredients worked together beautifully in such a tasty way!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hey Janeal! Wow, I can feel your enthusiasm about this recipe through the screen! Love it!

  3. Sue

    5 stars
    So tasty! I will definitely be making this again, but next time I will make some parts of it ahead as this took me over an hour of active work. I know the first time is always the longest, but I”d still like to spread it out. I’ll also start out with my deeper frying pan. I did use a large one, but it was basically just a skillet, and what this requires is something a few inches deep by the time everything is added in and you’re trying to toss it without sending orzo and chickpeas overboard! I did not use preserved lemon peel and added vegan feta. I feel like a little bit of mint would work with this too.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Sue! We’re glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Jen

    This sounds so good, any recommendations to make it gf?

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Jen, thanks! If you have access to gluten-free orzo, 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.

  5. Laurie

    5 stars
    This salad is such a winner! I love it and made it several times this summer!! It’s SO good!! (Bonus: I was happy to learn how to preserve lemon peel!) Thank you!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Laurie, So glad to hear you loved this recipe!

  6. Roshni

    5 stars
    This recipe has become a staple for us and have recommended it to others, too!!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Awesome, Roshni. Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to review!

  7. Laura

    5 stars
    I didn’t have, nor have I ever had, preserved lemon peel or Aleppo pepper. I’m also really bad at slicing garlic because a clove is pretty small, so I just minced it for the sake of my fingers. Could I use my mandolin for that?

    But, even if with these missing, this pasta salad was so good! It smelled so yummy while cooking that my husband and I ate it hot when it was done; we didn’t want to wait for it to cool. Delicious! The spice profile is *chef’s kiss*!

    I put this on a bed of spinach, arugula, and halved cherry tomatoes, and packed it for my back-to-school lunches this week. I looked forward to it all week! My husband also had it for lunch, but he heated it back up and insisted it continued to be yummy. Not sure I agree with, or would recommend, his reheating, but he actually ate it and had a healthy planted-based lunch, which was my goal! Nisha, would you consider developing a similar recipe that is meant to be eaten warm, not as a pasta salad? I’m sure it would be amazing!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Laura, we’re thrilled you and your husband are such fans of the pasta salad!! :)

      As for the garlic, yes you can use a mandoline but be VERY careful. use a mandoline glove if you do!

      And as for orzo pasta, Nisha doesn’t have any recipes other than this one but I’ll let her know it’s been suggested! :)

  8. Linda

    5 stars
    Made this tonight as a side dish. Didn’t have the preserved lemon peel but still it came out great. I used a little extra lemon zest. I will be making this again for sure. Will be great at the next family dinner as my bring along meal!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Your positive feedback is the best reward for our hard work. Thank you, Linda!

  9. Melissa Dahan

    5 stars
    Just made this last night and wow! I made it without the lemon preserve but think I’ll be sure to order it on Amazon and try it with the next time I make this dish. It’s definitely in my weekly rotation. I ended up using Seggiano whole wheat orzo and it was awesome.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Your positive feedback is the best reward for our hard work. Thank you, Melissa!

  10. Mara Bevan

    5 stars
    Another fantastic recipe!
    So tasty, colorful and amazing blend of texture.
    I always make double and my friends were loving this also.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Mara, thank you so much for your kind review!

  11. Heidi Clark

    5 stars
    Amazing! I added more sundried tomatoes and enjoyed the additional color and taste :)

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Heidi, we’re so happy you enjoyed it! Thanks for leaving a review :)

  12. Lisa Capone

    5 stars
    Made this and OMG!! Fabulous!! Keeper!!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for such a lovely review, Lisa!

      1. Lisa Capone

        My friend offered to pay me to make this again just for her. I kid you not

        1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

          So lovely to hear that, Lisa! :)

  13. Angela

    Can this dish be made one day ahead of time?

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Angela, yes! If you can, store the chickpeas separate from the pasta salad and make the gremolata the day of! Re-crisp the chickpeas a little on a frying pan before adding to the salad with the gremolata and the pasta salad will taste super fresh!

  14. Gianna

    can I use preserved lemon paste instead? or just use lemon zest at that point? my store unfortunately only has the paste

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Gianna, you totally can! I’d start with 1 tablespoon of the paste, taste, and add more if you’d like. Have fun and enjoy!

  15. Jash

    5 stars
    I made this for a picnic and it got rave reviews. I used the whole pound of orzo and increased other ingredients apart from the chickpeas, next time I’ll use two cans. Didn’t really notice the pine nuts.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      We’re over the moon to hear the recipe was well loved, Jash. Thanks for your kind words!

  16. Janine

    5 stars
    This is awesome, next level. I think the fresh basil and lemon makes it. I didn’t have preserved lemon but I think it would be even better with it in. I made a double batch because we have company and everyone loves it.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Your positive feedback is the best reward for our hard work. So lovely to hear the orzo pasta salad was well-received. Thank you, Janine!

  17. Kyla Radbourne

    This is so delicious! Definitely one of my favorite recipes

  18. Jen

    5 stars
    This was amazing! I had never heard of preserved lemon and I found it at Whole Foods. It truly made the dish and I can’t wait to use it again! This dish had so much great flavor, I will be making it again very soon!

  19. Elizabeth Ward

    5 stars
    Made this for a get together with our friends and it was a hit with everyone! Very straightforward and easy to make, with fantastic flavor. And if you do a little planning it’s pretty easy to time the steps out so that things can be happening in tandem, so you can get this delicious dish on the table fairly quickly! Perfect for spring / summer!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Elizabeth, Thank you so much for such a fantastic review! Appreciate you taking the time!

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