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How-To

Tiny Pastas, Big Flavors

Fine Cooking Issue 51
Photo: Scott Phillips
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I like my pasta warm, even on a scorching summer day. I don’t mean to disparage the American tradition of cold pasta salads, but the things I like best about pasta and Italian cooking—vibrant flavors and delicate textures—seem to hibernate when they’re chilled. The solution on a sticky summer day is to marry Italian culinary discipline with American casual entertaining.  

Small pastas like ditalini, orzo, shells, and orecchiette are great in pasta salads, and they fit the mood of informal summer eating. Their diminutive size makes them perfect plastic-fork food, they need little oil to prevent sticking, and their textures hold, even if left out on a picnic bench for an hour or two.  

Choose small, seasonal ingredients and full-flavored pantry items

You can vary warm pasta salad accompaniments, but do match their size to the shape of the noodle. Vegetables, bountiful in the summer, are obvious choices. You don’t even need to cook delicate, leafy greens like arugula or baby spinach, as they will obediently wilt under the pasta’s heat. Cut broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus into smaller pieces and then blanch them in the same water as the pasta. To add flavor, soften garlic, onions, or ginger in a little oil. For more substance, sauté mushrooms or meaty vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, and eggplant. 

The radiating warmth of pasta brings out the flavor of items like black olives, capers, red chile flakes, and sun-dried tomatoes. Any of these can be used interchangeably depending on your mood, what’s fresh, and what’s in the fridge or pantry. 

To finish the dishes, warm pasta salads demand only a touch of acid as an enhancement, as all of their flavors and textures are still fresh and intact. Small pastas also have less surface area and therefore need less oil to keep from sticking, and less oil means they stay delicate and light.

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