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 128 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

In a large sauté or frying pan, add the olive oil, sliced garlic, and pine nuts (sorry, the pine nuts are missing in this shot!). Turn the heat to medium-low. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently once they start sizzling to prevent burning.

Add the chopped preserved lemon (if using) and Aleppo pepper (or crushed red pepper). Cook for 1 minute, stirring almost constantly.

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 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

Tips for making this recipe

Preserved Lemons

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.

Other tips

When frying the garlic and pine nuts in olive oil, start with a cold pan. This helps cook everything evenly and prevents the garlic from browning too fast. Once they start to sizzle, start stirring frequently so nothing browns too much.

Don’t cook your orzo in advance and let it hang out in the colander, as it has a tendency to clump up into one big pile.

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!

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

Don’t have access to preserved lemons? Replace it with 1 tablespoon of lemon zest (about the amount in a medium lemon).

Can’t find orzo? Use a short pasta shape like orecchiette.

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 at the end for cheesy, salty vibes (I like Violife vegan feta and the Trader Joe’s brand)
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 128 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

Spiced Chickpeas

  • 1 (15-ounce/425g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon sweet or hot paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ¼ teaspoon onion powder

Basil Gremolata

  • 1 ¼ cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves (20g), chopped
  • 1 medium or large lemon, zested
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or grated
  • Flaky sea salt

Orzo Ingredients

  • 12 ounces (340g) orzo
  • ¼ cup (56 mL) extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (as evenly as possible)
  • ¼ cup (32g) pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon peel (see Note 1 for sub)
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes; see Note 2)
  • Kosher salt or sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 8 oil-packed sundried tomatoes (~45g), chopped
  • 3 big handfuls (70g) baby spinach, roughly chopped

Instructions

  • Make the Spiced Chickpeas. Transfer the chickpeas to a clean dish towel. Gently rub to dry them of as much as you can without smushing them.
  • Heat a large sauté pan or frying pan over medium-high heat with the 1 tablespoon oil. Once hot, add the chickpeas and spread out in a single layer. Cook undisturbed for 2 minutes to allow some browning. Toss and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until chickpeas are golden brown and blistered in spots.
    Note: If using a nonstick pan, the chickpeas may take longer to get browned.
  • Add the 1 teaspoon kosher salt, oregano, paprika, thyme, and onion powder to the chickpeas, and toss well to coat the chickpeas. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly to coat the chickpeas and to prevent spices from burning. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  • Make the basil gremolata. In a small bowl, combine the chopped basil, the lemon zest, minced garlic, and a few pinches of flaky salt. Set aside for the last step.
    Juice the lemon to get 2 tablespoons; set aside for the last step.
  • Cook the orzo. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the orzo and cook according to the box instructions 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 cup (240 mL) or 2 big ladles if the cooking water.
  • Return the pan used for the chickpeas to the stove but don't turn on the heat yet. Add the 1/4 cup (56g) olive oil, sliced garlic, and pine nuts.
    Turn the heat to medium-low. Stir occasionally and use a spatula to separate the garlic slices as needed. Once they start to sizzle, stir frequently to encourage even cooking and prevent the garlic from browning. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until most of the garlic and pine nuts turn golden.
    Add the chopped preserved lemon peel and chili flakes. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
  • Add 1/4 cup (60 mL) pasta water to the pan and whisk to combine. Add in the hot orzo and chopped sun-dried tomatoes, tossing to combine (with tongs or a sturdy silicone spatula). Add more pasta water as needed to bring the sauce together and/or if the orzo sticks a lot.
  • Add in the spinach and 2 tablespoons lemon juice and toss gently until wilted. Add in the spiced chickpeas and toss to warm.
    Take off the heat. Add the basil gremolata and toss gently. Taste for seasonings, adding lemon juice or salt as needed.

Notes

  1. If you don’t have preserved lemons, use 1 tablespoon lemon zest instead (the zest in 1 med or large lemon). 
  2. Aleppo pepper is considerably spicy than crushed red pepper flakes, so if using the latter, start with 1/4 tsp, then add more to taste. 

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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5 from 128 votes (44 ratings without comment)

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214 comments on Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad

  1. Tiffany

    5 stars
    This was SO delicious! I made it for a family party and even the kids were devouring it! I had to switch out the orzo for ditalini because it was all I had at home but otherwise it was the same recipe. So amazing!

  2. Tiffany M

    5 stars
    Made this tonight and it was delicious!!!
    I’ll be making it again, not only because I loved it, but because I have a whole jar of preserved lemons to use up now, lol.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Tiffany, it’s great to hear you had success with the recipe. Thanks for the review!

    2. Xas

      5 stars
      Incredibly tasty salad.
      I only had to switch out spinach because it was sold out but even with baby leaf salad (sorry) it was great. ;-)
      The only downside for me personally is that it takes some time and many different steps to get there. Totally worth it though!

  3. Tracy

    5 stars
    Delicious, tastes like the kind of salad you get at an expensive deli that is an occasional treat. The preserved lemon was not hard to find at my usual grocery store. Lots of great textures and a ton of flavor Don’t skip the preserved lemon!

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Tracy, thanks for the wonderful feedback! :)

  4. Lolita aaron

    This looks like a wonderful salad, will definitely make it.. for my family, Will use quinoa for those who don’t tolerate gluten

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      We hope you enjoy, Lolita! :)

  5. Mon

    5 stars
    I made so many substitutions because I made it 30 minutes after it was posted… lemon peel instead of preserved lemons, walnuts instead of pine nuts and parsley instead of basil but it was still delicious! I can’t wait to make this properly, I’m sure it’ll be a 12/10

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Great to hear you found it delicious, Mon! :) Cheers!

  6. Jill Falkenstein

    Made this for a vegan friend and I love it. I love spicy so I added more red pepper flakes. I was nervous about the preserved lemon, but it adds another demention of flavor. Loved the basil. Basically, I love the whole dish.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      That’s so great to hear, Jill! Next time, would you mind leaving a rating alongside your review? Star ratings are big help to readers who are thinking of making the recipe. Thanks!

  7. Meg

    5 stars
    This is amazing! Great hot or cold! I will be making this for my lunches all the time. The flavors are like a journey I love it.

    1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thank you for your kind words, Meg!

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