To turn a salad into a main dish, you can add grilled shrimp or a few strips of juicy flank steak, perfect with this Orecchiette with Romesco Sauce.
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
Every flavor counts in a cool pasta, so Joanne Weir uses her best olive oil.
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