Now don’t turn up your nose and go “ugh”. I know that the last thing you ever want out of the deli case is that ubiquitous, fake mayonnaisey pasta salad with odd little bits of celery and onion suspended in a sticky white glop, along with mushy bits of elbow macaroni.
I completely understand.
But it is summer, at last, and I also believe that a chilled pasta salad should be one of your classic “go-to” meals in the hot weather. After all is said and done, pasta salads are easy to make, portable, great for picnics, barbecues, potlucks and Friday night suppers when you’re feeling just too torpid to turn on the stove.
The problems with most un-appetizing pasta salads can be summed up with the characterizations of “blandness”, “overcooked pasta” or “heavy sauces that mask the flavour of the vegetables.” But pasta salads really don’t have to be mediocre; as with most good cooking, you should start with a respect for your materials. That is, remember that this is a PASTA salad and think clearly about the actual carbs that form the basis. There are so many types of pasta available that the sky’s the limit, although I would watch out for certain types of tortellini which really are meant to be served hot. Dried pasta works better than fresh pasta, by the way, the fresh pasta being so fragile that it can become mushy in an instant.
Anyway, you probably know the rules: make sure you abide by them. For instance, use enough rapidly boiling water — a gallon for a 16 oz package of pasta. And for chilled pasta — I would add even more salt to the water than usual — 2 tablespoons, at least, to a pound of pasta. Cook the pasta until it is al dente — but not so stiff as to become hardened when chilled. (There is no way to tell al dente, as far as I’m concerned, beyond trying out little pieces of the pasta while it’s cooking.) And a hint from Bon Appetit, which I found really helpful. Don’t rinse the cooked pasta under cold water. Instead, toss it quickly with the best olive oil that you can afford and spread the pasta out on in a single layer on a baking sheet or a flat surface, to cool completely. This seems to keep it separated and stops it from getting stiff and doughy later on in the refrigerator. And don’t ever use butter on it, because, as you know, when cooled, the butter will congeal.
What you need to add to your perfect pasta is up to you. Some kind of sauce or dressing to bind the flavours together, a few fresh vegetables (need I say local and at the peak of their flavour) and some herbs or spices to give it a bit of pizzazz. I also like to add something salty or crunchy — maybe pine nuts or radishes or capers or feta or olives. Mayonnaise is the classic sauce, used on salads that won’t be sitting around at room temperature for a long time and fine, if spiced up with something so that it’s not boring. Always use more salt than you think you will need — and sea salt or Maldon salt gives a bit of texture. And there seem to be a lot of instructions by chefs about blanching the vegetables briefly, instead of just chopping them up and throwing them in. Again, use your own best judgment — blanching broccoli florets, for example, seems sensible to me — but I don’t want to be cooking fresh tomatoes (although roasted tomatoes have a fine flavour.) Do try to exercise some restraint. The pasta and three other flavours are about all you need in one dish — any more and everything becomes a blur.
Here are a couple of my favorite pasta salads. Don’t know where the recipes came from, have happily used them for years.
Spaghetti and Tomato Salad with Dill Yogurt Dressing
1/2 lb spaghetti
1 1/2 cucumbers
1 large garlic clove
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup well shaken buttermilk
1/4 cup fresh dill sprigs, chopped
1/4 lb vine-ripened cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup Kalamata olives
1) In a 6 quart kettle bring 4 quarts of water to boil for spaghetti.
2) Peel and seed cucumber and shred on large holes of grater. Squeeze shredded cucumber in a kitchen towel to remove excess liquid. Seed and dice remaining half cucumber.
3) Chop garlic and mash to a paste with salt.
4) In a large bowl stir together shredded and diced cucumber, garlic paste, yogurt, buttermilk, all but 1 tbsp dill and salt and pepper to taste.
5) Halve or quarter tomatoes and cut olives into thin slices. Stir together tomatoes, olives and remaining tablespoon dill and season with salt and pepper.
6) Cook spaghetti until al dente and drain in a colander. Cool on a baking sheet (see above article).
7) Add spaghetti to yogurt mixture and toss to coat.
8) Serve spaghetti with tomato mixture. Serves four.
Tuna Pasta Salad
Elaine’s very old, very easy, very good recipe
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 lb penne rigate, freshly cooked to tender,
1 tbsp finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 6 oz can tuna packed in oil (use the Italian tuna!)
1 15 oz can white beans, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
1) Whisk together mayonnaise and lemon juice in a large bowl.
2) Add remaining ingredients and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Serves 6 as a main course with a green salad — a great simple supper.