As much of a recipe and rule follower as I am, I do enjoy going off-script and improvising. I get to feel creative and, ideally, use up odds and ends around the house, or capitalize on what looks the best that moment at the farmers market.
The summer staple pasta salad is one of those ideal winging-it kind of dishes, but you want to put some thought into it. Here are a few tips for making your best one yet.
Avoid the kitchen sink mentality. “Just because you’re making a pasta salad, don’t succumb to the compulsion to empty the contents of your refrigerator into the bowl,” former Washington Post recipe editor Stephanie Witt Sedgwick wrote in 2005. “A well-made salad deserves fresh ingredients.”
Quality, in other words, is much more important than quantity. At its most basic form, “You just need a nice tomato, some pasta, olive oil and salt and pepper,” says chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina in Washington, D.C.. “You don’t really need that much else.” Pick a few ingredients to spotlight, and let them shine, ideally without drowning them in dressing.
Choose a good shape. “Things with ridges are great,” Brandwein says. Look for shapes that will allow sauces and ingredients to cling to them. Top contenders include fusilli, rotini, orecchiette, shells, farfalle (bow tie) and campanelle. After making a Petite Pasta Salad With Corn, Tomatoes and Feta, I’m also sold on ditalini, whose tiny tubes were uniform in size with the kernels of corn and diced tomatoes. Because pasta salads are such common on-the-go, potluck dishes, stick with shorter shapes that are easily scooped and eaten standing up (or hunched over a desk?). Longer shapes are not only trickier to eat in certain situations, but also more prone to breaking when cold.
Cook it properly. Suggested strategies differ here, and I can see the rationale behind all of them. The most typical advice is to cook the pasta to the point where it still has a little bit of bite left and isn’t completely soft. Brandwein says the pasta will continue to cook a bit as it cools anyway, and keeping the noodles on the firmer side will prevent them from turning to mush in the salad. Her preferred strategy is to toss the cooked pasta with some olive oil and let it cool on a sheet pan.
Sedgwick recommends taking the cooling a step further by rinsing the cooked pasta under cold water. “Rinsing the just-cooked pasta extracts excess starch that can make the pasta gluey, ensures that the pasta will stay firm and eliminates the need for a lot of dressing,” she writes. On the other hand, Melissa Clark at the New York Times recently suggested tossing hot pasta with dressing to keep the pasta from sticking together and to help it soak up flavor.
To throw a completely different possibility in the mix, Annie Petito at Cook’s Illustrated turns conventional wisdom on its head by suggesting you cook your pasta several minutes past the slightly firm (al dente in commonspeak) stage. “Just as leftover rice hardens when it is refrigerated, al dente pasta tastes overly firm once it cools,” she explains. That is a result of starch that pulls back together once the pasta cools and traps water. When you slightly overcook the pasta, her argument goes, by the time it hardens, it will achieve the right texture.
The fact of the matter is that no matter which strategy you choose, your pasta salad will likely be fine. Think about which method seems most reasonable/easiest to you, as well as how you plan to dress your salad and how much of that dressing you want to use. You’re experimenting with pasta, which is pennies per serving. Don’t sweat it.
Dress judiciously. “The flavor in a pasta salad should come from its guest stars — fresh herbs, cheese, vegetables, meat. The oil and the vinegar just help them along,” according to Sedgwick. “Always start with less dressing than you think you will need.” For her part, Brandwein is not a fan of vinegar or vinaigrettes in salad. She thinks they eat away at the pasta. Instead, she prefers to dress pasta salad with olive oil and lemon juice for acidity. But if you do plan on using vinegar or a vinegar-based dressing, especially if you’re assembling in advance, you may want to hold off on adding it until shortly before you plan to serve the salad.
Prep. When you think about typical pasta salad add-ins, “a lot of these things need to be cooked first,” Brandwein says. She includes broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini and greens on that list. Hard pieces of vegetables, especially with softer pasta, isn’t something she likes, not to mention the fact that raw vegetables will not soak up flavors as well. Roasting and, especially, grilling will improve texture and taste. Hold off on more delicate ingredients, such as herbs, until the last minute. Brandwein also prefers to add tomatoes at the end so they don’t get watery and mealy.
Put it all together. Go as traditional or eccentric as you want. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” Sedgwick advises. “Pick pairings you know work: mozzarella and basil; chicken and tarragon; Parmesan cheese and, well, anything.” No matter what you want to include, it’s worthwhile to take colors, textures and taste into account. Ingredients such as capers or olives can add enticing pops of briny flavor. Your cheese can be assertive and distinct (cubes of feta, curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano) or creamy and mellow (ricotta stirred in, torn pieces of mozzarella). Or finely chop some anchovies for an umami hit, as Brandwein recommends. Pasta salad also takes well to the addition of proteins such as chicken, salmon and even sausage, which can help elevate it out of side dish territory.
Petite Pasta Salad with Corn, Tomatoes and FetaTo keep this dish light, I choose a small pasta shape, sometimes labeled “salad” pasta, such as small shells or bows. Vegetables are cut the same size as the pasta. For flavor, I add chopped herbs, a good shot of vinegar and feta cheese, crumbled finely for maximum distribution. Only a tablespoon of oil is used here, but add more if you prefer a silkier-textured pasta salad.
The salad works as a lunch dish on its own; it could also serve as a side salad on a buffet or with grilled or broiled meats and fish.
Make Ahead: The salad is best the day it is made, but it will hold in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Servings: 8-10 side-dish
8 ounces salad-size dried pasta, such as small shells, farfalle, ditalini or tubetti
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and seeded, cut into 1/4- to 1/2 inch dice (1 1/4 cups; see note)
Kernels from 2 ears of cooked corn (1 1/2 cups)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions.
Meanwhile, combine the tomatoes, corn, feta, chives, parsley, balsamic and red wine vinegars, oil and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Toss to coat evenly; let sit for 10 minutes.
Drain the pasta and rinse it with cool water so you can use it right away. Shake off any excess moisture, then add the pasta to the tomato-corn mixture. Toss to incorporate; add oil as needed.