Maili’s Orzo Arugula Salad

I first met Maili Halme Brocke five years back when we took a cooking class together in Montecito. You know when you meet someone and you feel connected to them instantly? That’s how it is with Maili. Watching her snap photos and contribute her two cents about the recipes demonstrated, my petite food groupie heart was aflutter. I quickly progressed from thinking, “This girl knows what she is talking about,” to inviting Maili to lunch at my house so we could talk non-stop about all things “food.”

Maili is owner and executive chef of Maili Productions, a catering and event planning company here in Santa Barbara. Her celebrity clientele sing her praises, as do most people who are lucky enough to know her and eat her food. When I started my blog last year I knew I wanted to feature Maili as one of the Chefs in My Kitchen. Our focus for her class: create recipes fresh from the garden that would be perfect for entertaining.

On the day of the class she arrived armed with bound recipe books filled with summer garden recipes and information for all in attendance. The eight of us picked produce from my garden (full disclosure — with wine glasses in hand), then we watched and learned as Maili created a simply spectacular orzo salad, arugula salad with truffle oil and Marcona almonds, cold peach soup, stuffed squash and basil blossoms and a savory plum sauce. What better way to spend a summer afternoon … perched around the kitchen island with friends, hearing great tips, fun stories, devouring her tasty concoctions, and, of course, a little mid-day wine tasting?

Here is the first of the many recipes we enjoyed in my kitchen. It’s so good I almost ate the whole plate before I remembered to take a picture.

Maili says that this recipe is very forgiving. You can toss in whatever you want, in whatever amounts, but the most important ingredient is the sautéed onions. They’re chunky and cooked for 15 to 20 minutes until translucent. The original recipe was developed by Maili’s friend Narisha, who prepared it to accompany roast chicken. Narisha used just five ingredients: orzo, Meyer lemons, arugula, capers and Parmesan cheese, but Maili adds a few more.

Maili’s Orzo Arugula Salad

1 one-pound box of orzo

1 large yellow onion

1/3 cup olive oil

Pinch of salt for the onion

1 7-ounce bag of baby arugula (spinach can be substituted)

2 cups sugar plum tomatoes (or grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes), cut in half

1 cup (about five ounces) feta cheese, crumbled (Parmesan is an excellent substitution)

1 cup pine nuts, toasted (can substitute Marcona almonds), nuts are optional

2-3 tablespoons capers, rinsed (optional)

1 13.75 ounce can artichoke hearts packed in water

Juice from two lemons (Meyer lemons if possible)

Minced fresh parsley, basil, and/ or mint

Salt and pepper to taste


While you’re getting all of your other ingredients together, cook the orzo in boiling salted water for 9 minutes. Rinse orzo until completely cool before adding other ingredients.

Sauté onion over medium heat in 1/3 cup olive oil. This may seem like more olive oil than you would generally use to sauté, but the extra oil will be flavored with the onion and used as the dressing for the salad. Put a pinch of salt on the onion while cooking.

Cook onion for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and sweet. (The longer you cook onions the better they are, so don’t skip this part.) In the largest bowl you have, toss the warm onions with the cooled pasta. Be sure to use all the oil from the sauté pan.

Add the arugula, tomatoes, feta (or Parmesan), pine nuts, capers, artichoke hearts, herbs of your choice, lemon juice and sprinkle of salt and pepper. Toss to combine.

Serve at room temperature. Can be kept at room temperature for 6 hours. If you’re planning to wait before serving, then add the arugula as close to serving time as possible. Try not to refrigerate this salad, as it changes the texture and flavor of the pasta.