‘Tis the season for pasta salads. They’re a summertime staple at picnics and backyard barbecues for good reason: They can be prepped in advance, feed a crowd, and hang out for hours. Most importantly, they’re easy-breezy, exactly what a dish on a hot summer day should be.
Except that, in reality, pasta salad is often the most snoozeworthy dish on the picnic table—bland, mushy, oily, heavy, or all of the above. It’s the dish that we bypass entirely or shuffle to the sides of our plates after a few bites to make room for the things we actually want to eat.
This summer, let’s change that. Pasta salad can be so much more than macaroni slicked in mayonnaise and tri-colored spirals swimming in Italian dressing. Here are some tried-and-true tips that I’ve accumulated over the years for making bright, beautiful pasta salads, plus a recipe that puts the tips to good use.
Pick the right size and shape. Opt for pasta that can be stabbed with a fork or scooped with a spoon, especially for outdoor gatherings (save spaghetti for another occasion). Use the shape and size of the ingredients in your salad to guide your pasta choice. Think rigatoni or penne for fat rounds of roasted zucchini; orzo or pearled couscous for small cubes of cucumber. Fusilli, gemelli, and casarecce are all-around favorites of mine because they have plenty of crevices to trap dressing, cheese, and herbs.
Don’t skimp on salt. Cook your pasta in a large pot of generously salted water. Dishes served cold or at room temperature require more seasoning than warm dishes, so make sure your pasta is well seasoned from the get-go.
Drain but don’t rinse! Keep the sticky starch on the pasta; otherwise the dressing and other ingredients will slip and slide right off the pasta and into the bottom of the bowl.
Dress right away. Warm pasta absorbs flavors better than cold pasta, so toss the freshly-cooked pasta with enough dressing to evenly coat. To prevent clumping and mushiness, spread the dressed pasta on a sheet pan. It’ll cool faster, too.
And dress brightly! There are so many good choices: pesto thinned with a little olive oil, a lemony-yogurt dressing, or just good extra-virgin olive oil and a little acid drizzled and tossed. Avoid butter in pasta salads (it’ll congeal as it cools) and use a light hand with balsamic and other dark vinegars since we eat with our eyes first, as they say.
EAT YOUR VEGGIES
Load up on fresh, seasonal vegetables. Zucchini and summer squash, peppers, eggplant, sweet corn, green beans, cucumbers--all are great options in the summer. And proportion is key. The best pasta salads have roughly equal parts volume of pasta and vegetables, so be generous. For a pound of pasta, plan on 1 to 2 pounds of vegetables as a rule of thumb.
And cook those veggies! Of course there are exceptions, things like cherry tomatoes (technically a fruit, but let’s roll with it), slivered green onions, and the freshest, sweetest corn stripped from the cob. But in general, vegetables should be sautéed, roasted, grilled, or at least blanched. (Raw broccoli or carrot sticks with soft pasta? No thanks!)
Vary the textures and flavors. Some of my favorite pasta salads feature one vegetable prepared in two different ways. My Half-Blistered Tomato Pasta Salad (which mixes roasted and raw tomatoes) in Mighty Salads uses this trick. A pasta salad with half grilled corn and half fresh would be lovely, too.
ALL OF THE EXTRAS
Double up on the cheese. There’s absolutely no rule anywhere that limits you to one cheese! Choose complementary cheeses to add flavor and texture. Think torn chunks of creamy mozzarella with wisps of nutty parmesan, dollops of fresh ricotta with crumbled aged provolone. To keep the cheese looking its best, add it near the end so it doesn’t take on the color of the dressing and other ingredients.
Shower with herbs. And LOTS of them! Basil, mint, parsley, chives, dill, tarragon, and cilantro: individually or in combination, roughly chopped or torn. Keep in mind that tender herbs like basil and mint oxidize quickly, so add them at the last minute when the pasta has cooled. Use a light hand with assertive herbs like oregano and sage—they quickly become flavor bullies.
Go nutty. Most pasta salads cry out for a little crunch. Enter walnuts, slivered almonds, pistachios, and pine nuts to the rescue. Just make sure they’re chopped finely enough to nestle up with the pasta.
Pack a punch. Briny, salty things like capers, pickled onions, and preserved lemon are such a good way to enliven pasta salads.
Taste and season (again!) before serving. Even if the seasoning seemed just right when assembling the salad, it might not be hours later. Add another pinch or two of sea salt, a squeeze of lemon, and a drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil to gild the lily.
A WINNING EXAMPLE
This peperonata pasta salad is a new favorite of mine. Peperonata—the classic Southern Italian side dish of sweet peppers, onions, and tomatoes melted in olive oil—is a swell companion to pasta. It’s packed full of vegetables and serves as the dressing (a win for pasta salad, a big win for you). My peperonata borrows elements from two recipes: a generous heap of capers from Suzanne Goin’s version in Sunday Suppers at Lucques and cherry tomatoes added off the heat from Joshua McFadden’s take in Six Seasons. Better yet, the peperonata can be made several days in advance and tossed with freshly-cooked pasta whenever you’re ready. Creamy mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, slivered almonds, and loads of basil keep each bite interesting. Serve it as a main course, or pair it with grilled meat. Italian sausage and cold beer are smashing accompaniments.
So repeat after me: No more sad pasta salads this summer. Make this one, or create your own using these tips, and watch people clamour for seconds.
- 3 large sweet peppers (about 1 1/2 pounds)--I like using a mix of red, yellow, and orange peppers
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 small red onion (or half a large red onion), thinly sliced into strips about the same size as peppers
- 1 tablespoon minced thyme leaves
- Kosher salt plus freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons capers
- 2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar, plus more to taste
- 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes, divided
- 1 pound casarecce or other tubular pasta
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, chopped walnuts, or slivered almonds
- 1 cup basil, torn into small pieces
- 5 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-sized chunks
- 1 1/2 ounces Parmesan, thinly shaved
Are you a fan of pasta salad? Let us know in the comments below.