Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Food52's Assistant Editor, Marian Bull, goes to bat for pasta salad -- and explains how to make it classy, without a recipe.
Poor pasta salad.
By itself, pasta is inoffensive; same goes for salad. When combined, though, they conjure up memories of weird potlucks and scary deli cases. We wince at the thought of unevenly cooked bowties and bracing raw onions, of tiny cubes of bell pepper, accidentally pickled by a too-vinegary dressing.
Its macaroni cousin is gloopy; technicolor versions feel like a sick '90s joke. We all have a little bit of sun-dried tomato PTSD.
But pasta salad deserves redemption. Pasta salad can be classy! Like any good starchy dish, it's just a canvas for whatever flavors you feel like throwing together in a bowl, so you can go as low-brow (cubed cheese) or as high-brow (pine nuts, fancy vinegar) as you want.
So let go of your bad memories and start anew with pasta salad -- you'll soon learn that it deserves top billing at your Memorial Day parties and inside your picnic baskets. All it requires are good, chewy pasta; a punchy vinaigrette; and enough crunchy and salty doo-dads to keep you on your toes.
Once you stop thinking of pasta as something that must be eaten hot, you'll realize it's brilliant cold -- so long as you treat it right. Here's how to dress it up into pasta salad, without a recipe:
1. Put on a large pot of water to boil, and salt it well. While that's happening, whisk together your dressing. I like a simple, mustardy vinaigrette (here's how to make one), with plenty of acid to give the salad a good tang. But use whatever dressing you like.
2. Cook your pasta to al dente. Drain it, but don't rinse it; the starch that lingers will help your dressing adhere and thicken. If you have leftover cooked pasta, that will work too; break apart any stuck-together pieces, gently, with your fingers.
A note on noodles: Choose a short pasta shape you'll be able to eat in one bite, with a fork (or your fingers); good options include fusilli, orechiette, and -- my favorite -- radiatore. Something with nooks and crannies is best, as it will grab onto dressing, cheese, and other flavorful bits, rather than letting them fall to the bottom of the bowl. Save your bucatini and pappardelle for another day.
3. Dress your pasta while it's still warm, and do so liberally; the pasta will absorb some dressing, and the last thing you want is a dry or sticky salad. I use somewhere between 3/4 to 1 cup of dressing for each pound of dried pasta. You want it to glisten!
4. This is where you really get to express yourself! Add your doo-dads now -- as many as your heart desires. I like a somewhat Greek salad-inspired combination, with cured black olives, toasted pine nuts, feta cheese, chopped scallions, and fresh herbs. But you can also add sliced vegetables like cucumbers, snap peas, or even thinly sliced zucchini, when in season; chopped nuts and toasted seeds; and, yes, sun-dried tomatoes. If you're adding something watery, like an ultra-fresh tomato sometime in July, let it drain a bit to avoid drowning everything else.
5. Toss everything gently, so as not to completely pulverize your more delicate toppings; you want crumbly cheese to retain its crumbles. Add a big handful of herbs -- parsley does well here -- and toss one last time. Serve up in a big bowl, and watch your guests eat the entire thing, childhood scars be damned.
Photos by James Ransom