Big Little Recipes

The 5-Ingredient Pasta Salad We're Inviting to Every Summer BBQ

June 25, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making a side dish that’s good enough to eat for dinner.

I love mayonnaise and I love pasta, but I don’t love mayonnaise-y pasta salad. Probably for the same reason that I don’t love mayonnaise-y potato salad: These side dishes often appear at warm-weather, crowded-backyard, sticky-sweaty occasions, where I’d always prefer something a little brighter and lighter.

There are lots of no-mayo pasta salads on Food52 that fit the bill. This one features a saucy peperonata with sherry vinegar and capers. This one has pesto, olives, and lemon zest. And this one is the ultimate ode to summer tomatoes.

All of these, like so many no-mayo pasta salads, have one thing in common: cheese. Maybe it’s milky mozzarella or ground-up Parmesan. But its purpose is always the same—to add some richness or creaminess and apologize for the shall-not-be-named missing ingredient.

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Top Comment:
“Even if you don't love anchovies you should try it. Adds an amazing umami flavor. Super simple and delicious!! I ❤ Food52!! Thanks for sharing such simple & delicious recipes!!”
— Jgrams1

This pasta salad makes no apologies.

It has five ingredients, each one of which confidently holds its own, like Lady Gaga’s outfits at the Met Gala: pasta, peppers, anchovies, walnuts, and olives. (You have to picture paparazzi hooting and hollering after each one.)

Photo by Julia Gartland

I’ve seen this combo work wonders for years at my family’s annual summer reunion—not at dinner, but before dinner, while we drink and snack as the sun slumps in the sky. My mom is known for overdoing it on appetizers, and her strategy is usually the same: roasted peppers, mixed with mashed anchovies and olive oil, a big bowl of roasted nuts, and a just-as-big bowl of briny olives. It’s the sort of spread that people spoil their supper over (though I was raised to believe that’s a good thing).

It turns out, all you need to do is mix these ingredients together and add pasta, and you get a side salad that’s repeat-worthy good. Like classic pasta salad, it would be happy next to hamburgers and hot dogs, or grilled chicken, or tempeh kebabs. But I’d just as soon make this alone and call it a day.

What's your favorite way to make pasta salad? Let me know in the comments!
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Jgrams1 November 8, 2019
I LOVE this recipe!! Even if you don't love anchovies you should try it. Adds an amazing umami flavor. Super simple and delicious!! I ❤ Food52!! Thanks for sharing such simple & delicious recipes!!
Emma L. November 8, 2019
Three cheers for anchovies!
margaret S. July 4, 2019
I made this for lunch today using whole wheat rigatoni, roasted cherry tomatoes, olives, toasted walnuts, sliced scallions and turkey pepperoni as we don't like anchovies. I dressed it with basic oil and vinegar. We thought it was delicious.
Heather June 28, 2019
This sounds great, but I would add more vegetables--tomatoes, avocado, corn, green beans. Maybe kidney or black beans or egg for protein? Maybe toast the walnuts? Marvelous.
Pam W. June 27, 2019
I love all the ingredients, but for me the anchovies overwhelmed everything else. Maybe I'll try it with the suggested salami instead of anchovy.
Carol H. June 25, 2019
I don't do anchovies. Is there something else I can add?
Emma L. June 26, 2019
Hey Carol! The anchovies add umami and salt, so any other ingredient that checks those boxes would be a good substitute. A few that come to mind: canned tuna, any sort of cured meat (say, diced salami), or even sun-dried tomatoes.
Sharon R. June 26, 2019
Worcestershire sauce has anchovies inside wo you knowing!! I love them!
Carol H. June 28, 2019
Thanks for replying! I might also add a few shakes of umami seasoning as well.