Friday, June 4, 2010

Pasta Salad 101: Curing the Ubiquitous and the Bland

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m Italian-looking or because my cooking is that good, but I’m often asked to contribute a pasta salad to potluck summer parties. Now that the season has really kicked in, I’m preparing for the onslaught. But I don’t want to do same ol’, same ol’.

They’re everywhere and usually pretty bland, even my own, I must say. So after poring through hundreds (maybe just dozens) of recipes, I landed on an article from Pam Anderson (the cook, not the other one!) that was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a “how-to” rather than a prescriptive recipe. Her tips and hints are explained very well and provide as much inspiration as a pretty picture. I do enjoy understanding the reason we do some of the things we do, rather than just doing them because someone (even if it was my grandmother) said that was the way to do it.

I believe the first time I ever had a pasta salad was about 25 years ago at a Memorial Day party. The pasta was spaghetti and it was reddish in color and everyone was eating it up. The cook who brought it easily rattled off the recipe: a pound of spaghetti, a bottle of Italian salad dressing, a package of dry spaghetti sauce mix, pepperoni, and green pepper. That was it. Maybe black olives. An effortless hit. And perfectly satisfactory, I guess, but not for me. I much prefer fresh ingredients and just a bit of fuss. Easy is okay, but, for me, part of the joy of cooking for others is to show the people I’m with that “I like you guys and I want to make a fuss over you and this is the best way I know how.”

Here’s an abridged version of Pam Anderson’s “Five Steps to a Perfect Pasta Salad”:

Step One. Prepare 1 pound of pasta, bite size shapes (so much for that spaghetti salad of yore!) like farfalle, fusilli, penne, ziti, small shells. Cook in a gallon of boiling water and add 2 tablespoons of salt just until tender. Drain but don’t rinse the pasta. Instead dump onto a rimmed cookie sheet to cool and dry. Don’t worry if the pasta sticks together. The dressing will break it up.

Step Two. Prepare two pounds of key ingredients, the salad’s major add-ins: cooked and raw vegetables, poultry, seafood, canned beans, mild cheeses, cooked or raw vegetables, etc. Choose at least three major flavorings. Let one key ingredient take the lead: 1 pound of asparagus with 8 ounces each of sliced mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, for a total of two pounds.

Options for cooked vegetables
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli or cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Snow peas or sugar snap peas
  • Zucchini
Options for no-fuss vegetables
  • Canned artichoke hearts
  • Bean sprouts
  • Celery
  • Mushrooms
  • Cucumbers
  • Fennel
  • Avocado
  • Zucchini
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Frozen green peas, thawed

Step Three. Add the intense flavors. Add about a ½ cup of one of the following options, but feel free to add 2 or 3 – roasted peppers, feta cheese and pine nuts will give a Mediterranean feel.

Capers, drained (1/4 cup)
Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable
Feta, crumbled
Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
Peperoncini, drained & thinly sliced
Sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, cut into small dice
Bacon, fried and crumbled (8 ounces)
Prosciutto (8 ounces) thinly sliced cut into small dice
Smoked salmon (8 ounces) thinly sliced then cut into thin strips
Toasted nuts – pine nuts, cashews, peanuts
Toasted sesame seeds or sunflower seeds

    Step Four. Add onions and herbs. No matter what else is in your pasta salad, always add three large green onions, sliced, or half a small red onion, diced. Then mince 3 tablespoons fresh herbs and/or grate 2 teaspoons orange or lemon zest.

    Step Five. Make a dressing. You’ll need one cup to coat the salad. Make sure the dressing is thick and emulsified; otherwise, the pasta absorbs the vinegar and the oil clings to the pasta’s surface. Stick with milder rice vinegar or lemon juice for the acid. Although balsamic vinegar is flavorful, it tends to turn a salad and unattractive beige.

    And the best tip of all:  Don’t dress and toss the salad until about 15 minutes before serving.

    I made a pasta salad for a family get together a few weeks ago following Pam’s tips and it really made a big difference. (Attention to detail usually does, doesn’t it?) I made shrimp the main ingredient, mushrooms and broccoli combined for the second pound, then red peppers and feta for add-ins.  Fresh herbs were just a modest parsley, but fresh makes a big difference.  My nephew with the discriminating taste pronounced it “The best ever!”

    Here’s a favorite dressing for pasta salads:

    Creamy Vinaigrette

    ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons mayonnaise
    1 large clove garlic, minced
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2/3 cup olive oil

    Measure vinegar and mayonnaise into a 2 cup measure. With small whisk, stir in garlic, and big pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Measure oil in another cup. Slowly whisk oil into mixture, first in droplets, then in a slow steady stream to make an emulsified vinaigrette.  (Actually, I prefer to make my dressings in the food processor to make sure they emulsify well.  Then I'll just give a good shake again before using.)


    1. pasta salads can be so many different things and they all are delicious!!! always a great side dish at any summer meal!

    2. Sounds great, I've been making the same one for years, it involves sweetcorn and little cubes of cheese and always goes down well, but I like the idea of the different proportions of ingredients. Thanks for sharing.

    3. What a great post! I love how adaptable pasta salad is...and I look forward to trying some of the ideas you listed. Thanks for sharing!

    4. Rose, you made my mouth water. Next party I know what to ask you to bring. lol Yum Yum


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