Baked orzo pasta with fragrant dried mushrooms and cubed pancetta is creamy like risotto, without any of the hard work. It’s orzotto, and it’s baked in the oven.
Risotto is hard work
Who doesn’t love risotto? The problem with cooking it properly is that it’s such a chore.
The whole palaver of stirring, stirring, ladling in stock, tasting a grain and realising that it’s still tough, then finally running out of steam and stock, dumping extra butter and Parmesan in and professing it’s al dente, hoping people will think it’s authentic and Italian rather than undercooked…
A chore, like I said.
Orzotto is a doddle
Orzo is a pasta shape that looks like rice. This dish served to an undiscerning eater might well pass for risotto.
It’s creamy, even though there’s no cream or milk in it, and very little butter. It has wonderful, unctuous texture and occasional crusty bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, like an Italian version of paella’s crusty bottom.
It’s mushroomy like the best mushroom risotto, earthy like the forest, with dice of pancetta for interest and a meaty boost. It’s a perfect dish.
And the best thing about it is that you place the pasta, stock and all in dish, slip it into the oven and you can put your feet up while it’s making completely by itself.
I call it orzotto because of the creaminess and the funny pasta shapes. Those Italians! Not enough for them to make pasta in the shape of radiators, ears, bow ties, wagon wheels – they also make pasta that masquerades as rice.
How to make baked mushroom and pancetta orzo
So how exactly is it made? Very easily. If you have an oven proof casserole dish or deep skillet, you can prepare it from start to finish in one pan. But even doing it like I do, it’s not much hassle.
Dried porcini mushrooms are available from most supermarkets or specialist retailers and it is worth getting those mushrooms rather than a random dried wild mushroom mix, which might not be all that wild at all.
Alternatively, but dried shiitake or wood ear fungi from an Asian outlet – those will have nice flavour and deep fragrance too.
Can fresh mushrooms be used instead?
It’s a natural question to ask but the answer is no. Some products specifically need to be used in their dried preparation, for various reasons. Would you use fresh grapes in your fruitcake instead of raisins? I thought not.
Dried wild mushrooms, porcini a.k.a. ceps in particular are impossibly fragrant and flavoursome when rehydrated. Plus, the soaking liquid serves as stock in this case, and in any case don’t ever throw it away.
For the baked orzo dish, be generous: use about 20-25g of dried mushrooms and pour them over with half a litre/2 pints of boiling water.
Cover the container and let them sit for at least half an hour like that. They will rehydrate, swell up and start to smell wonderful. After that time scoop them out, squeeze out excess liquid back into the container and chop them roughly.
Pancetta or bacon?
Pancetta is the Italian equivalent of bacon but it is actually closer to cured ham, prosciutto, than smoked streaky.
It is salted, cured and air-dried, and never smoked. It is also overall less salty than bacon, so if you want or need to swap, limit the salt addition. I prefer it in dishes like this, precisely because it tastes like ham even if it is rather fatty.
Pancetta starts the cooking process: fried until crispy. If indeed there is an awful lot of fat rendered, you can spoon some of it off the pan and reserve for other uses.
Onions join the pancetta to sweat briefly, then chopped mushrooms and a tablespoon of tomato puree – amazing how tomato enhances mushroom flavour.
If you’re using just one, ovenproof dish, take it off the heat and add dry past to the mix. Otherwise place the pasta in a clean casserole and scrape the contents of the pan into it.
The mushroom soaking liquor, our stock, should be boiling so heat it up on the hob or with a blast of the microwave.
Add salt to it - but watch out if you’re cooking it with bacon – and taste. Pour it into the pasta dish and stir it thoroughly, with a good few grindings of the black pepper mill.
It should be ready in just over half an hour but give it a stir halfway through, to check it isn’t sticking horribly. If the liquid is all absorbed and the pasta still very al dente, add a splash of water.
By the very end stir in half the grated Parmesan and use the rest to sprinkle over plates or bowls when serving.
More pasta bake recipes
Baked ziti, penne or rigatoni with bacon and roasted aubergine: it does not drown in cheese or tomato sauce, and it is not a million calories like your usual pasta bake.
Carbonara pasta bake, with bacon, Pecorino and egg yolks. No cream added and only a little cheese make the dish a little skinnier but just as delicious.
Provolone pasta bake with homemade tomato marinara sauce. The best vegetarian pasta casserole recipe, with the tastiest sauce; topped with provolone which is the best melting cheese for pasta al forno dishes.