Planning on going on any picnics, family cookouts or neighborhood street parties this summer? If so, you can give yourself a bit of a break by making a tasty pasta salad ahead of time.
Yes, we’ve all had the pasty, bland macaroni salad that Aunt Minnie always makes.
And it’s understandable if there’s a little hesitation about being associated with bad, cold pasta – but pasta salads don’t have to be bland or boring! Done right, they’re packed with flavor and wonderful textures.
We’ve found the best tips and techniques for salads that are full of flavor, aroma and textures. Read on and give one of our zesty recipes a try for your next summer outing – make a double batch because you won’t be bringing any leftovers home!.
Pasta Salad Basics
These attractive and tasty salads are dishes that really lend themselves to being made ahead. The flavors seem to blend and improve after a couple of hours in the fridge, and they require no additional prep before serving except maybe the addition of a garnish or dressing.
Perfect for a large gathering, pasta salad is a very versatile dish. With little effort, they can be dressed up or down with a multitude of ingredients, flavor intensives, toppings and dressings.
You could also put out individual servings in edible, natural bowls, like tomatoes or cucumbers with the seeds removed.
Pasta salads are usually served chilled or at room temperature. They can be prepared with one or more types of noodle, a variety of vegetables, herbs, some intense flavor accents, and a dressing that’s either creamy with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette.
It may be served as an appetizer, a side dish or as an entrée, and is most noted for its outdoor appearances in spring and summer months.
Ingredients will vary widely due to seasonal availability, region and personal preferences, and can cover the gamut of food groups. They include vegetables, legumes, cheeses, nuts, herbs, spices, meats, poultry, or seafood.
Broccoli, carrots, baby corn, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled artichokes, cucumbers, olives, onions, canned beans and other legumes, peppers, parmesan, feta and goat cheeses are all popular ingredients that will be found in restaurant salad bars and the deli sections of your grocery store.
On display all of these varied ingredients may look delicious, but it’s rare for a commercially produced salads to actually taste as good as it looks. The flavors can be dull, bland, overly processed and lacking depth.
Instead, it’s time to make your own!
The 5 Steps
Your pasta salads will be much more flavorful and interesting if you make them yourself. Get creative with your favorite ingredients and flavors, but do give your combinations a little thought.
For example, teriyaki chicken would be great in a salad with soba noodles, Asian greens and a rice wine vinaigrette – but not so much in one made with feta cheese and Kalamata olives.
To produce delicious pasta salads every time, just follow the following five steps to success:
1. Prepare and Cook the Pasta
Choose small, extruded pastas that are easy to eat in one bite – you should be able to eat this salad standing up, with only one hand to hold a utensil and the other to hold your plate or dish. So avoid the longer noodles like spaghetti or linguine unless specifically called for in a recipe.
Recommended pasta types are: fusilli, penne, ziti, rotelle, elbow macaroni or small shells.
Follow the package directions and cook the pasta (or make your own) in boiling water seasoned with salt until just tender, or al dente. Drain, rinse and toss with a bit of olive oil, and cool to room temperature.
You can also use the electric pressure cooker to prepare a variety of pasta shapes. Check out our tutorial for elbow macaroni!
2. Prepare the Main Ingredients
Aside from the pasta, these are the salad’s major components. Cooked and raw vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans and cheeses would all fall into this group.
Some will require little or no preparation to be salad ready, while others may require par-boiling, par-steaming, sautéing or grilling. Grate, chop, slice and dice as per the recipe directions, ensuring all are cut into bite sized pieces, so as not to overwhelm the pasta.
For the main ingredients, try to select at least three major flavors and let one of them take the lead. For example, chicken with broccoli and sliced red peppers is a well-used combination.
The lead ingredient can be distinguished from the others by including it in greater quantities, or using a specific cooking technique or sauce.
Some of the veggies recommended for these summer salads benefit from par-steaming for that perfect, tender-yet-crispy texture.
Use a pot with a steamer insert, or par-boil by adding the veggies to your pot of boiling noodle water for the last minute of cooking, then drain and cool with the pasta.
Good candidates for par-steaming or par-boiling are:
- Broccoli or cauliflower florets, cut into bite-size pieces
- Asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-size 1” lengths
- Carrots, cleaned, peeled and cut into ¼” medallions
- Green beans, trimmed and cut into bite-size lengths
- Snow peas or sugar snap peas, strings removed
- Zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced into ¼” wedges
“As Is” Vegetables
Choose your favorites from a long list of ingredients that are best served raw: bean sprouts, celery, mushrooms, cucumber, avocado, zucchini, tomatoes (grape, cherry, plum or romas), bell peppers and peas, just to name a few.
Grilling vegetables adds smoky layers of depth to the flavors, and they are well suited for these cool salads. Before grilling or broiling, brush with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and some freshly diced herbs for the best flavor.
Suitable vegetables for the grill include: eggplant, corn, fennel, large mushrooms like portobellos, squash, bell peppers and zucchini.
If your tastes run more to Asian-themed noodle salads, lightly sautéed veggies such as celery, green onions, bell peppers, carrots and broccoli are ideal.
Proteins for Main Ingredients
Once your main ingredients are ready to go, mix in with the room temperature pasta.
3. Choose the Flavor Intensives
Stronger tasting than the main ingredients, these intense flavor accents should be used sparingly. Add at least one and up to three flavor intensives to your salad – again, letting one of them be the lead.
Some good options for the intensives are:
- Sharp cheeses, crumbled or cubed: feta, Parmesan, goat, Asiago, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Cheddar, Cheshire….
- Capers, drained
- Anchovies, drained and chopped
- Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
- Pepperoncini, drained and thinly sliced
- Roasted peppers, cut into strips
- Sun-dried tomatoes, drained and diced
- Bacon, fried, drained and crumbled
- Prosciutto, thinly sliced or diced
- Smoked salmon, thinly sliced, then cut into thin strips
- Pine nuts, toasted
- Roasted cashews, coarsely chopped
- Roasted or honey-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds, raw or roasted
- Crunchy roasted chickpeas
- Pumpkin seeds, raw or roasted
- Any kind of tree nut
Stir in your flavor intensives after the main ingredients.
4. Infuse with Herbs and Aromatics
Regardless of what else goes into your salad, always add herbs and onions. Two or three large sliced green onions, or half of a small sweet or red onion diced up, will work for pretty much any recipe.
The types of onions can be switched freely, although green onions do tend to be best for Asian-style salads.
Mince about 3 tablespoons of fresh herbs and add about a teaspoon of zest from a lemon or lime, plus a teaspoon of olive oil or another type that’s great for use in cold dishes, along with salt and pepper. Mix together in a small bowl and add to the pasta with, or just after, the flavor intensives.
- For Asian-flavored pasta salads, cilantro, basil, and citrus zests work well.
- Dill, mint and tarragon will usually work with a creamy dressing.
- Basil is a natural for Mediterranean-flavored salads.
- Rosemary, tarragon, savory, thyme and oregano are strong flavors, so you may want to tone them down with some minced parsley – half and half is a good combo.
- If you can’t decide on which herbs to use, you’ll always be safe selecting freshly minced parsley.
- And of course, pesto is superb in pasta salads.
Add herbs with the intensives or the dressing.
5. Make the Dressing
For a salad that will serve four to six people, count on adding about one cup of dressing to fully coat all the ingredients.
Make your favorite dressing ahead of time, but be sure to give it a good shake before adding it to your salad. Whether it’s mayo based or a vinaigrette, you want it to be thick and make sure all of the ingredients well emulsified before it goes on the pasta.
The pasta will absorb any separated ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar, so a well-shaken dressing is mandatory.
Remember that red wine vinegar or balsamic will discolor the noodles, and with the intense flavors already present, a mild tasting vinegar often works best.
Add the dressing and toss the salad just prior to serving.
And voilà, you have the perfect pasta salad! To try out the five steps, here are a couple of my favorite recipes to practice on.
Summer Corn Pasta Salad
This tasty dish is summer in a bowl: fresh sweet corn kernels, zesty fresh lemon, and basil leaves flavor a base of bowtie pasta. Serve this alongside a sunny summer cookout or picnic!
Pesto Pasta Salad with Green Peas
This pasta salad is creamy and dreamy with fresh pesto, and the counterpoint tart flavors of the lemon juice and Parmesan cheese are wonderful flavor bombs on your taste buds.
Sicilian Pasta Salad
Like Sicily herself, this salad is full of intense flavors – the Pecorino cheese is an aged, sharp sheep’s milk cheese that crumbles easily, a favorite grated over all types of pasta in Sicily.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.