Pasta Salad

The No-Mayo Pasta Salad That Will Change Your Mind About Pasta Salad

by:
June 14, 2018
Pasta salad borrows from Italian peperonata. Photo by James Ransom

‘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.


PERFECT PASTA

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“A pasta salad I've been making for years is dressed with a good viniagrette with a few cloves of chopped garlic, some marinated artichoke hearts, and any veg that looked good at the store. Add some chick peas or cannellini and maybe some tuna or leftover chicken if you want to make it heartier. A summertime hit and just the thing on a hot day. Totally agree about cooking the veg, especially broccoli or cauliflower. But I'm flexible about the carrots. If they're grated I think raw is fine, but anything chunkier definitely cook.”
— cookinalong
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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.


DRESSING TIME

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.


SERVING TIME

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.

Are you a fan of pasta salad? Let us know in the comments below.

10 Comments

Valerie N. June 27, 2018
I love pasta salad and always like new ideas. I am making it this weekend. We have had tons of rain and my basil is going crazy. Love that it needs a cup of this delicious herb. Thanks for a lovely recipe.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC June 27, 2018
Really hope you like it, Valerie! And feel free to go even heavier on the basil; I often do! : )
 
Valerie B. June 22, 2018
This made me laugh because I thought I was the only one who felt this way about pasta salad! I will definitely be making this recipe. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC June 23, 2018
Great to hear, Valerie! Hopefully this version will change your mind about pasta salad! : )
 
rudder June 22, 2018
such great tips!!
 
Author Comment
EmilyC June 22, 2018
Thank you! Hopefully they’ll come in handy this summer. : )
 
Eric K. June 16, 2018
This is the best pasta salad I've ever had.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC June 17, 2018
Yay!! : )
 
cookinalong June 14, 2018
A pasta salad I've been making for years is dressed with a good viniagrette with a few cloves of chopped garlic, some marinated artichoke hearts, and any veg that looked good at the store. Add some chick peas or cannellini and maybe some tuna or leftover chicken if you want to make it heartier. A summertime hit and just the thing on a hot day. Totally agree about cooking the veg, especially broccoli or cauliflower. But I'm flexible about the carrots. If they're grated I think raw is fine, but anything chunkier definitely cook.
 
Author Comment
EmilyC June 17, 2018
Love the sounds of your pasta salad--thanks for sharing! And yes, I'll give grated carrots a pass as well! : )