When I was a young child, pasta pickings were slim, if not generally, then certainly in our house. Spaghetti, linguine, and lasagna each had a designated purpose. Elbow macaroni was allowed to cross borders from -and cheese to summertime macaroni salad. The preferred, uh, macaroni for the latter, though was what we now call ditalini.
The salad ingredients were as simple as they were unvarying: cooked and cooled macaroni, celery, onions (which I was very adept at eating around), and green bell peppers, the only kind/color I knew existed until I moved to California many, many years later. Dressing? Mayonnaise, and plenty of it. Seasonings? Salt and pepper, the more pepper the better. My mother couldn’t get enough of it.
Still, I loved macaroni salad. It meant summer. East coast summers were swelteringly hot, and you could practically wring humidity from the air before your face. Macaroni salad was always served as a side to hot dogs or hamburgers that our father grilled outside, over charcoal of course. Either, paired with that cold, creamy salad with bits of crunch, are among my happiest summer memories, even given the occasional onion that slipped through. We’re having a similar summer here and now, albeit with less humidity.
It’s time to give the old dear a facelift. I added some ingredients to make it more of a chilled entrée for a warm summer evening, for a lunch, or even for a buffet. But first, she needs a true dressing.
4 chicken thighs or 2 chicken breasts, bone-in or boneless
Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper
1 pound ditalini or elbow macaroni, cooked, drained, cooled in cold water
4 ribs celery, 1/4? dice
1 orange or red bell pepper, 1/4? dice
15 ounce can pineapple tidbits, drained
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, minced
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
12 grinds of pepper
2 pinches red pepper flakes
In This Recipe
This is one of those dishes that improves after the ingredients are fully chilled and the flavors have had a chance to meld. You can easily make it 12 hours in advance.
Light a charcoal fire (my preference), or start a propane grill. While the fire either burns down or heats up, film the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. Set the onion slices in it and turn them over, seasoning both sides with salt and pepper. Remove them to a baking sheet. Do the same with the chicken pieces. Also remove them to the baking sheet.
When the fire is ready, arrange the onion slices and the chicken pieces on the grate. The onions will clearly be done sooner than the chicken. Grill the onion slices for about 4 minutes per side, turning them carefully, though honestly, if a few pieces slip into the fire, the flavor of everything being grilled will only be that much better. When done, remove them to a clean platter.
Continue grilling the chicken pieces until done. Poke them with a fork or knife; when the juices run clear, the meat is done. Remove them to the platter. Allow the chicken and onions to cool while you cook and cool the pasta and prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, about 10 minutes. When done, strain through a colander then return it to the pot in which you cooked it. Run cold water into the pot, tossing the macaroni with your hands until no residual heat remains, then drain it again. Transfer it to a large salad or mixing bowl.
Add the celery, bell pepper, pineapple, and tarragon to the bowl. Strip the chicken from the bones, and dice it up. Chop the onions. Add both to the bowl. Toss all the ingredients together with a large spoon.
Whisk the dressing ingredients together. Don't even bother tasting it; it won't taste like anything by itself. It needs the combination with the salad to bring all the flavors together. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to distribute it throughout. Stir in the salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, then taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary.
When serving outside in hot weather, it’s best to serve mayonnaise-based salads in small quantities, with the larger amount refrigerated or kept in a cooler set out of the sun. To serve this salad, spoon some into a bowl that you can set inside a larger bowl filled with ice and a small amount of water. Refill the salad bowl with cold salad as often as you need to, and also keep an eye on the ice.