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Garden Pasta Salad with Chicken Sausage, Dried Apricots, and Walnuts

Mary Anne here. The weather outside is frightful – and I’m not talking snow. Here in the Northeast, we’ve been hitting 90-degrees almost daily, and the Weather Channel is predicting we’ll top out at 100 by the end of the week…and it’s only the sixth of July!

This past weekend, I was hankering for my Summer Ratatouille but there was no way I was turning on the oven in Mother Nature’s sauna. As I pined for roasted eggplant, I began to conjure up the following recipe, which is fresh, fast, and the only heat you’ll need is for a pot full of boiling the water and a quick sauté. In fact, I never even broke a sweat! Another bonus? The nice people at Oh Nuts sent us a box full of nuts and dried fruits (free of charge), which they sell in bulk at pretty terrific prices. With a couple of select choices from this bounty, I married a nutty crunch to a wonderful chewy sweetness. If you’re a vegetarian – or entertaining one – you can simply swap out the chicken sausage.

Unfortunately my photos are not as crisp as Mariel’s, (I have a feeling Michael will be taking care of my camera problem on my birthday!) but believe me, this is as pretty to view, as it is totally satisfying to consume. The salad incorporates all of my favorite things in food – sweet, savory, and spicy underscored with a variety of complex textures. A delight in every bite! This travels well for a picnic on a sultry summer day and will definitely be on the menu for the Ellicott family reunion in August.

Garden Pasta Salad with Chicken Sausage, Dried Apricots, and Walnuts
8 Main Dish Servings with Leftovers

1 lb. orzo, cooked to package directions – $0.99
¾ lb. chicken sausage – $3.29
1 lb. eggplant, cut into ½ inch rounds – $1.46
1 medium Vidalia or sweet onion, finely diced – $0.71
4 or 5 Tablespoons olive oil, divided – stock
2 cloves garlic, minced – stock
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered – $1.75
1 medium seedless cucumber, diced – $0.66
2 yellow tomatoes (optional), seeded and diced – $1.26
¼ lb. Brie, cut into small dice – $2.02
1 cup oil-cured green olives – $1.96
red pepper flakes, to taste – stock
1 scant cup fresh basil leaves, chopped (1 Tablespoon after chopping) – $0.39
¾ cup chopped walnuts – stock
1/3 cup dried fruit, i.e. apricots or peaches, diced – $4.99
½ lb. fresh arugula leaves – $2.99

For the Dressing:
1/3 cup Balsamic vinegar – stock
1 Tablespoon brown sugar – stock
1 Tablespoon Dijon-style mustard – stock
2/3 cup olive oil – stock
Grand Total Assuming Well-Stocked Pantry: $22.47
Total Per Serving: $2.80

1. Sweat the eggplant slices. Line a cookie cooling rack or shallow jellyroll pan with paper towels. Salt both sides of the eggplant and place on the paper towels. Allow the veggie to rest for 20 minutes. Blot the beads of moisture dry with additional paper towels.

2. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the diced onion and cook over medium high flame, stirring frequently, until pale gold and beginning to caramelize about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and continue sautéing an additional 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

3. While the onion is caramelizing, cook the orzo according to the package directions. We like it firm, so our cooking time is 8 minutes. Once cooked, drain in a colander under cold running water. Set aside.

4. Using the same sauté pan that the onion was caramelized in, heat about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. You want the oil hot, but not smoking. Add the eggplant slices and sauté until golden, about 6 to 8 minutes per side. Once golden on both sides, transfer to a cutting board and chop into ½ inch dice. Set aside.

5. Using the same sauté pan, heat the remaining oil. Sauté the sausage links, turning frequently, until they are deep, golden brown all around and heated through. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into ½ inch thick slices and set aside.
*Note: We used chicken sausage that was already cooked. If using raw sausage, it must be cooked in boiling water for about 10 minutes. After boiling, proceed with the instructions above. Test for doneness by slicing into the sausage. It is cooked through when the meat is pale white and has no hint of pink.

6. In a very large mixing bowl, combine the orzo, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives, dried apricots, red pepper flakes and Brie.

7. Whisk together the dressing ingredients. Pour about 2/3 of the dressing over the pasta and vegetables, tossing well to combine. Correct the seasonings with salt and pepper.

8. Divide the arugula evenly between 8 shallow pasta bowls (if you have them, otherwise deeper bowls or regular dinner plates will do.) Drizzle the arugula leaves with a bit of the reserved dressing. Using a large spoon, pile the pasta salad into the center of the arugula. Sprinkle each serving with the walnuts and basil. Divide the sausage slices evenly and place alongside the edge of the pasta salad. Serve at room temperature.