This time of year, I can’t find enough ways to use zucchini. It’s literally spilling out of my garden right now and if I don’t pick it, it’ll turn into baseball bats that are too large to fit in my refrigerator. To avoid the dreaded humongous zucchini, and to avoid dropping it off to everyone I know, I’m trying to find ways to preserve it so I can savor its flavor in the fall. Besides making a ton of Zucchini Bread, I developed this recipe for a Creamy Pesto Chicken, Zucchini, & Orzo Casserole that I will be so thankful for come winter when the snow covers the farm from December to April here in Vermont.
There are several reasons I love this recipe.
- It’s made in one pot. As the orzo is cooking, prep your chicken and vegetables. Drain the orzo and set it aside while you use the same large pot to cook your chicken, zucchini, and red onion. Return the orzo to the pot and stir in pesto and cream.
- It’s a crowd-pleaser. From my 16-month-old twins, to the older teenagers, and my doesn’t-think-he-is-picky husband, this was a dish everyone devoured.
- It makes 11 cups. That means you can serve 8 people as a main dish, or 12 as a side. You can freeze it all in your Souper Cubes, or you can eat some now and freeze the remaining for later.
- It’s versatile. I used chicken, zucchini, and orzo but you can use other proteins, vegetables, and grains. For more examples, see the variations below.
Chicken Thighs vs Breasts
I tested this recipe with chicken thighs and chicken breasts. While most prefer one over the other, I highly recommend using chicken thighs. In this recipe, and any recipe where chicken is frozen then reheated, the chicken thighs stay more moist and have more flavor when reheated. Even better, chicken thighs are less expensive than breasts.
I kept this recipe very simple but it’s incredibly versatile if you’d like to use a different protein, vegetable, or grain. The cook times might vary depending on what protein, vegetable, or grain you pick but look for the visual indicators I mention in the recipe instead of only following the time.
For example, when cooking the chicken, the recipe says, “until lightly browned on all sides but not cooked through, about 2 minutes.” If you decide to swap shrimp for chicken, the shrimp will be lightly browned in 1 minute versus the 2 minutes listed for chicken.
Here are a few suggestions for variations along with cooktimes.
Use a Different Pasta
You can easily swap the orzo for any short-tube or small pasta, such as elbow macaroni, ditalini, rotini, pearl couscous, or fusilli. Cook the pasta al dente according to package instructions and proceed with the recipe.
Make it Gluten-Free
Instead of using orzo or another wheat-based pasta, try using a long-grain rice or gluten-free pasta, such as the Banza chickpea pasta. Again, cook it according to the package instructions and proceed with the recipe.
Swap Your Protein
Instead of chicken, try using shrimp or pork. The cook time for the pork will be the same as chicken but shrimp will cook for a shorter time.
Swap Your Veggies
An equal swap for zucchini is other summer squash, like yellow squash. You can also use a mixture of other veggies, such as green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, kale, spinach and/or tomatoes. Since zucchini has a high water content, and because I’m a veggie-lover, this recipe calls for 5 cups but feel free to adjust based on who you are serving.
A Note on Pesto
Purchased pesto runs the gamut in terms of flavor and sodium. I’m a huge fan of fresh pesto from the refrigerated section in the produce section of your grocery store as it has less sodium than jarred versions and tends to taste brighter, as well as have a brighter green color. Jarred pesto, usually found in the pasta section near the jarred tomato sauce, tends to be saltier, so be sure to adjust the sodium in the dish according to your pesto.
Freezing and Reheating Tips
Orzo is a very forgiving pasta and since this is supposed to be a creamy dish, the pasta freezes and reheats like a dream. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when freezing pasta.
1. Let the pasta cool for at least 30 minutes before freezing. If you put the lid on over the hot pasta and put it in the freezer, the steam will create condensation and then freezer burn.
2. Do not overcook the pasta. Since the pasta will cook a bit when you reheat the casserole, you’ll want to make sure your pasta is only cooked the minimum amount in Step 1.
You can reheat the pasta in your Souper Cubes stoneware from frozen or thawed.
To bake from thawed, place the Chicken & Orzo cube in the Souper Cubes stoneware and let thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Reheat in a 400°F oven, uncovered, until bubbling on the edges and lightly browned on top, 25 to 30 minutes.
To bake from frozen, place the Chicken & Orzo cube in the Souper Cubes stoneware. Cover with foil and bake at 400°F for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until bubbling on the edges and lightly browned on top, 10 to 15 minutes more.
How to Make Creamy Pesto Chicken, Zucchini, and Orzo Casserole
First, gather all your ingredients.
Using one pot, cook your orzo, then cook the chicken and vegetables. Add the cooked orzo back to the pot along with the pesto and cream.
This recipe uses an entire 1 pound box of orzo and makes 11 cups.
Eat immediately or transfer to 2-cup Souper Cubes (or do both).