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Pasta Salad Recipe: Create Your Own

Follow a simple formula to make a lighter, fresher pasta salad

by Peter Berley

from Fine Cooking
Issue 65

Perfect for an outdoor picnic or a casual dinner party, pasta salad is a versatile summer side dish. Yet it can also be less than spectacular: I'm sure you've had at least one rubbery, starchy, or bland version. But pasta salads don't have to feel leaden; a few principles can make yours feel lighter, fresher, and, well, more like a salad. Start by using a high proportion of vegetables and other add-ins, so that the dish isn't all about the pasta but instead has the refreshing effect that an abundance of seasonal vegetables, herbs, and cheeses bring to it. Then follow a few other tips to avoid pasta salad pitfalls.

Your finished dish will only be as good as the quality of the raw materials. Don't make a pasta salad with old or wilted vegetables, or with old, musty ground spices. If your dried pasta has been sitting on the shelf for ages , buy a new box; dried pasta has a shelf life of8 to 12 months, and whole-wheat varieties are especially susceptible to rancidity. Also, check that that your oils and vinegars are bright and clean tasting.

Pasta salads are best served warm or at room temperature within a few hours of assembly. I find that the flavor and texture of a pasta salad suffer if it's allowed to sit ( refrigerated ) for more than 3 to 4 hours. The salt, seasonings, and acid in the dressing will draw out the water from the vegetables, which in turn dilutes the flavor of the dressing, which is then absorbed by the pasta. The pasta tends either to break down and become flabby, or toughen and taste overly starchy. A better option is to make the components ahead and assemble them just before serving.

Choose ingredients to balance flavors and textures

Your choice of fresh seasonal vegetables, zesty dressings, herbs, cheeses, and other flavors will give a pasta salad its individuality and style. While almost any combination will work, keep in mind familiar and classic combinations-tomatoes and mozzarella, green beans and pesto, spinach, feta, and olives-to guide you. To make your decisions easier, start by choosing either a vinaigrette or a selection of seasonal vegetables, and then add flavors and textures to suit.

Serves 8 to 10

Make your vinaigrette

The acidity of a tangy, herby vinaigrette brightens the starchy pasta and brings the components of the dish together. Choose one of the vinaigrettes here, or use your favorite recipe. Just be sure it has a bright acidity.

Make one of the vinaigrettes (see options below) for your salad. Click the links for full recipes.

Choose one vinaigrette
Pesto Vinaigrette
Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette
Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette

Prep and cook your vegetables

Because pasta is so neutrally flavored, it's easy company for just about any vegetable. But if you want a truly fresh, seasonal feel to your pasta salad, choose summer vegetables like corn, beans, peas, peppers, and leafy greens. Many vegetables can also go in raw, though others need cooking first. Just remember to cut them all into bite-size pieces.

Put 4 to 6 quarts of salted water in a large pot and set it over high heat. Once it's hot enough to have dissolved the salt, taste the water-it should taste like sea water. If it doesn't, add more salt.

Prep your chosen vegetables (see options below) according the the list below.

If you've chosen string beans, asparagus, peas, snap peas, or corn, they'll need to be pre-cooked.
Because vegetables cook at varying rates, you'll need to cook each type separately. Drop each vegetable into the boiling water and, after a minute or two, bite into a piece to check doneness—you want them to be cooked through but still crisp-tender. Corn kernels, fresh peas, and asparagus usually take no more than 2 to 3 minutes; green beans might need a little more time. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon. Don't pour out the water when you're finished cooking your vegetables, keep the water on the heat to cook the pasta.

To preserve texture and color, cool the vegetables by spreading them on a baking sheet lined with paper towels, or by running them under cold water and spreading them on clean cotton towels. Blot them dry. This will help to absorb excess moisture, which is crucial because vegetables tend to retain a lot more of their cooking water than pasta.

Choose 2 to 4 vegetables, for a total of 6 cups

  • cherry tomatoes
    Cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • bell peppers
    Bell peppers, cut into thin matchsticks, 2 to 3 inches long
  • baby arugula
    Baby arugula
  • baby spinach
    Baby spinach
  • carrots
    Carrots, cut into thin matchsticks, 2 to 3 inches long
  • snow peas
    Snow peas, thinly sliced crosswise on the diagonal
  • zucchini
    Summer squash or zucchini, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
  • artichoke hearts
    Canned artichoke hearts, rinsed and quartered
  • chickpeas
    Canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • cucumbers
    Cucumbers (seedless), cut into quarter moons
  • long beans
    Green or yellow string beans, snapped into 2-inch lengths
  • asparagus
    Asparagus, cut on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces
  • peas
    Peas, fresh or frozen
  • sugar snap peas
    Sugar snap peas
  • corn kernels
    Corn kernels, fresh or frozen
Cook the pasta

The amount of pasta in the salad should never exceed 50 percent of the total dish. The greater the proportion of vegetables and proteins, the more the dish will feel like a salad. A pasta shape with some curves or twists works well because it helps catch and hold pieces of vegetable, cheese, and other ingredients. Some shapes to try include roIInl, gemelli, campanel", shells, and cavatappi, but really any medium-size pasta will do.

Bring the water back to a boil and cook 1/2 lb. pasta (see choices below) until just al dente, following the package instructions. Drain it thoroughly by shaking it in a colander and immediately pouring it out onto a rimmed baking sheet. The wide surface area of the baking sheet will encourage the quick evaporation of surface moisture. Toss the pasta with 1 Tbs. olive oil to prevent sticking.

Choose a pasta shape

  • rotini
    Rotini

  • gemelli
    Gemelli
  • campanelle
    Campanelle
  • pasta shells
    Pasta shells
  • cavatappi
    Cavatappi
Toss everything together

Boldly flavored ingredients like cheese, fresh herbs, red onion, and briny olives and capers give the salad bursts of flavor and contrasting textures.

Transfer the cooled pasta to a large serving bowl. Add the vegetables to the pasta and toss. Carefully dress the salad with enough of the vinaigrette to moisten the pasta, but be sure not to overdress it.

Add the cheese, if using (see options below), and add-ins (see options below) and toss again. (Ingredients like olives and capers should be added judiciously at first, looking and tasting to check the balance as you go). Let the salad rest for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and then taste the salad again. If necessary, add a little more vinaigrette and salt and pepper. Serve as soon as possible.

Choose one cheese (optional)

  • feta
    Feta cheese: 4 oz., crumbled (1 scant cup)
  • goat cheese
    Goat cheese: 4 oz., crumbled (1/2 cup)
  • mozzarella
    Fresh mozzarella: 8 oz., diced (about 1 cup)

Choose one or two add-ins

  • pine nuts
    Toasted pine nuts: 2 Tbs., more to taste

  • scallions
    Thinly sliced scallions: 3 Tbs., more to taste
  • red onion
    Diced or thinly sliced red onion: 1/4 cup, more to taste
  • flat-leaf parsley
    Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley: 2 Tbs; more to taste
  • basil
    Julienned basil: 2 Tbs; more to taste
  • dill
    Chopped fresh dill: 2 Tbs; more to taste
  • olives
    Pitted and slivered olives: 2 Tbs.; more to taste
  • capers
    Capers, rinsed: 2 Tbs.; more to taste

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