I remember when pasta salads in all shapes and forms were just becoming the rage in the United States. At about the same time, I was in Italy and asked an Italian friend if she liked them. She looked at me as if I were from another planet. Funny, I’d assumed we’d stolen the idea from Italy. Come to find out, pasta salads are mostly an American invention—and I think a pretty ingenious one. Why not, especially during the dead of summer, make a “cool” pasta dish rather than a hot one?
Cool pastas, with their simplicity and focus on good, fresh ingredients, lend themselves to warm-weather dining. With the addition of fish or chicken, they can be substantial enough to serve as a meal in themselves. And versatile as they are, cool pastas can be made ahead and served later at room temperature. You do need to take some steps to avoid the sticky pitfalls of heavy, less delectable pasta “salads.” Dressing and seasoning the pasta carefully (with oil-based vinaigrettes and other vibrant sauces, rather than mayonnaise-based dressings), as well as choosing the best seasonal ingredients, will produce a light, refreshing cool pasta, rather than a typical bland and heavy pasta salad.
For cool pastas with the best texture, use top-quality dried pasta
I look for pasta that’s made from 100-percent semolina or durum wheat. Most imported brands of dried pasta, and many domestic ones, are made of semolina or durum wheat. These pastas have a sturdier consistency than those made from softer wheats, and this sturdiness helps it maintain its chewy texture even after being cooked in boiling water, coated with a dressing, and chilled for any length of time.
Choose a pasta shape for your dish according to the sauce you’ll be using. If the sauce is on the thicker or chunkier side, a hefty rigatoni is the best choice. If your sauce is thinner and more fluid, fusilli or corkscrew-shaped pasta has lots of surface area to catch the sauce. Pasta shells, large or small, work best with shellfish, because they catch the bits of seafood in the dish. If I’m looking for texture, farfalle (butterfly-shaped or bow-tie pasta), with its puckered center, has the desired toothy quality. For an elegant cool pasta, I love the look of orzo with a finely diced confetti of fresh summer vegetables, dressed with a light lemony vinaigrette. Orecchiette, penne, tortellini, and elbows also work well in cool pastas because they’re easy to pick up in one forkful.
Go out of your way for the best-quality, freshest ingredients for summer pastas
After all, this is the time when flavors are at their peak. Seek out the tiniest, sweetest cherry tomatoes or the most colorful bell peppers from the farmers’ market or your garden. Use just-snipped parsley and mint from pots of herbs, or buy the peppiest-looking fresh herbs you can find. Hit the fish store for fresh mussels and clams. Take the opportunity to buy a really good feta cheese or your favorite olives. And use a splash of that truly delicious fruity extra-virgin olive oil
For these dishes, it’s especially important not to overcook the pasta
You don’t want your pasta to be limp and lifeless by the time you serve it. For starters, salt the pasta water (generously) once it has come to a boil. Once the pasta is added, give it a stir occasionally for the first two to three minutes so that the pasta doesn’t stick together. Then cook the pasta only until it’s al dente, which means that when you bite into it, there should still be a slight resistance. Remember that your pasta will continue to cook a bit after it has been drained. After draining, toss the pasta immediately with a tablespoon or two of olive oil so that it doesn’t stick together as it cools.
For a pasta that will be served cool, make a sauce or vinaigrette that actually tastes too bold on its own
Once you add the sauce or vinaigrette to the chilled pasta, the starchiness and neutral flavor of the pasta will temper the sauce’s flavor. Also, the flavor of food served cool will be slightly more subtle than food served warm. Taste your sauce again and again as you’re making it, and don’t be afraid to overseason your sauce or vinaigrette slightly. This might mean a little more salt, pepper, spices, vinegar, or lemon juice than you would normally use. Not all cool pastas need to be dressed
Not all cool pastas need to be dressed with a typical vinaigrette
A sauce based on a vegetable purée will stay saucy and make a nice dressing as long as it has some acid in it. Try making a sauce that’s rich with tomatoes, like the Spanish romesco sauce in the orecchiette recipe or a sun-dried tomato pesto. A sauce of puréed green herbs like salsa verde is great for a cool pasta, too. In the grilled tuna recipe, I use a version of charmoula, a spicy Moroccan sauce, to flavor the pasta. I sometimes punch up a basic vinaigrette with “tomato water” (made by cutting a tomato in half, grating the pulp with a box grater, and straining the result; the almost clear liquid is surprisingly tasty). I also like to add puréed red or yellow peppers or chopped anchovies. If you’re adding roasted vegetables to a cool pasta, save the accumulated juices from the pan and add those to the vinaigrette. For a creamy dressing, instead of using mayonnaise, mash a bit of goat cheese or Gorgonzola with cream or with a vinaigrette base. There are so many options, depending on the season, your market, and your imagination.
Try preparing the different components of a cool pasta ahead of time
I like to cook the pasta, drain it, toss it with oil, and chill it. Then, while the pasta is chilling, I make the sauce, whether it means grilling vegetables, making a vinaigrette, simmering shellfish, or dicing vegetables. Then, an hour or two before I’m ready to serve, I toss all the ingredients together and let it sit for a bit. (Some ingredients, however, like the fresh herb leaves in the Herbed Farfalle & Grilled Chicken Salad, are best added at the last minute so they don’t wilt or fall apart.) I find that the dish improves when the pasta, dressing, and other components are allowed to sit for at least thirty minutes and up to two hours. I usually don’t mix cool pastas much more than a few hours before I want to serve them, though, as they’ll lose their freshness after several hours, and are definitely not as appealing after 24 hours.
If you’re in a rush, you can mix the pasta dish while the pasta is still slightly warm. In this case the warm pasta will tend to absorb more of the dressing. The pasta itself may be more flavorful, but the dish might be stickier or drier unless you increase the amount of sauce.
I like to serve these pasta dishes cool or close to room temperature, but not cold, so I remove the pasta from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before I’ll be serving it. You can serve the pasta chilled; just remember that the flavors won’t be as pronounced in a very cold dish. Always taste before serving in case the dish needs a little vinegar or lemon juice to pick up the flavors.