So many people have the wrong idea about pasta salad — that staple of the summertime picnic season. It's a complete dish (often with starch, vegetable and protein all together), it's happy to hang out in your basket for several leisurely hours without complaint and it doesn't require much more than a fork to enjoy al fresco. Far too often, though, it's just done wrong.
The pasta salads of the supermarket salad bar or cheap catering spread often range from unexciting to unappetizing. There are barely any vegetables. Or, if there are, they're too crunchy for the accompanying soft noodles. And more often than not, there is mayonnaise. While I understand mayo's role in binding tuna or lightening the mashed yolks of deviled eggs (though I do maintain it's often overused in both), blobs of its thick, creepy whiteness have no place in pasta salad.
I'm not the first one to try to fix pasta salad. But that doesn't mean it's a task that shouldn't be undertaken. To be clear, I'm not just wagging a disapproving finger. As summertime rolls around, I feel it my picnic duty to pass along the tips I've learned.
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America, The World and Northwest News Network, and in The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.
It's summer. Produce is in high season. They're even good for you. Anything will work — crunchy sliced snap peas, ribbons of summer squash, grilled eggplant, shaved corn kernels. And don't forget about fresh herbs. There's no reason to turn to sharp-and-dusty dried herbs at this time of year. It's hard to go wrong with handfuls fresh basil, mint or chives.
Treat Your Vegetables Right
Crunchy vegetables add a beautiful note to pasta salads, but the harder ones will benefit from a quick blanch. Of course, this doesn't apply to all vegetables — tender snap peas and leafy shoots should keep their juicy green snap, and even items such as summer squash can be served raw, if they're shaved thinly enough. Of course, must-be-cooked vegetables such as eggplant need a turn at the grill. But many of the rest — chunks of carrots, slices of asparagus — are best after a quick dip in hot water. In fact, you'll be surprised at the delicious difference this makes. And you're already boiling the water for pasta. When the noodles are close to perfect, add the vegetables. Wait just a few seconds until their color deepens and they lose their hard edge but maintain their snap. Then drain and shock with cold water to keep from overcooking.
Go Asian Or Go Cheesy
There are a wealth of Asian noodle dishes to provide noodle salad inspiration. Japanese chilled salads, with their assortment of beautifully cut toppings (think sesame omelet, pickled ginger, bean sprouts) and soy-based dressings. Or Vietnamese bun, which pairs rice noodles, grilled protein and a bouquet of lettuces and herbs with a tart-yet-salty fish sauce and lime dressing. Instead of wheat-based pasta, try nutty soba noodles, light and refreshing rice vermicelli or delightfully bouncy bean threads. Give them a spark with sesame oil, seaweed, fresh mint or roasted peanuts — or various combinations. You can find an established recipe from any one of several Asian traditions, or just draw from the palette to create one of your own. If Asian flavors don't inspire you, try a more Mediterranean approach and pull your pasta salad together with crumbles of fresh goat cheese or a soft feta.
Explore New Dressings
Pasta salad needs something to keep things nice and slippery slurpy as they cool. But that need not be limited to pesto, basic oil and vinegar or (shudder) mayonnaise. Try a funky fish sauce dressing from Southeast Asia or freestyle a tangy buttermilk-based concoction full of fresh herbs. Use fresh citrus fruits (and their zest) instead of vinegar or add some fresh-grated ginger or a splash of sesame oil. If you like the dressing, you'll like the pasta salad. Keep in mind that bland pasta will slurp it up, so make your dressing both strong and abundant.
Does your pasta salad feel a bit generic? Raid the pantry and refrigerator for a few accent notes. Sesame seeds? Sliced hard-boiled eggs? Toasted hazelnuts? Buttery chunks of avocado? Play around with one or two options.
Whatever you create, you can chow down on it right away. However, giving it a few hours to sit and marinate while you seek out your picnic spot (and work up an appetite) might be the best ingredient of all.
Recipe: Spring Vegetable Tortellini Salad
This salad cuts the heaviness of tortellini with a bouquet of spring vegetables, both barely blanched and crunchy. Feel free to play around and incorporate whatever is in season — chive blossoms, shell peas, baby summer squash.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
1 pound cheese tortellini
1/2 bunch asparagus (about a dozen spears) cut into bite-size lengths
6 garlic spears (the budding top of the plant, also sold as garlic stems or garlic tops) cut into bite-size lengths (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
A few handfuls of pea shoots, arugula, spinach or other spring greens
Handful of snap peas, cut into bite-size lengths
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2-4 ounces soft goat cheese, such as chevre, crumbled
Handful of chopped toasted hazelnuts or pine nuts
Salt and pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and have a strainer ready in the sink. Add the tortellini to the boiling water and cook according to package directions, until just shy of done. Add the asparagus and garlic spears (if using), and cook an additional half a minute or so, until bright green. Pour the pasta and vegetables into the strainer and run a bit of cold water over them to stop the cooking, tossing to make sure they cool evenly.
Transfer the cooked pasta and blanched vegetables into a larger bowl, and toss with the olive oil. Add the greens, snap peas, lemon zest, half the lemon juice, goat cheese, nuts, salt and pepper. Toss to combine, then taste and adjust seasonings, adding the remaining lemon juice or additional olive oil if desired. Serve at room temperature.
Recipe: Soba Noodles With Eggplant And Mango
Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook Plenty (Chronicle, 2011) is full of combinations like this — dishes you never would have considered but can't stop eating. The eggplant definitely sops up a lot of oil, but it is well-balanced by the acid-only dressing.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 fresh red chile, finely chopped
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
1 cup sunflower oil
2 medium eggplants, cut into 3/4-inch dice
8-9 ounces soba noodles
1 large ripe mango, cut into 1/2-inch dice or into 1/4-inch-thick strips
1 2/3 cup basil leaves
2 1/2 cups cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
In a small saucepan, gently warm the vinegar, sugar and salt for up to 1 minute, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the garlic, chile and sesame oil. Allow to cool, and add the lime zest and juice.
In a large pan, heat the sunflower oil and shallow-fry the eggplant in 3 or 4 batches. When golden brown, remove to a colander, sprinkle liberally with salt and leave to drain.
Cook the noodles in plenty of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally. They should take 5 to 8 minutes to become tender but still al dente. Drain and rinse well under running cold water. Shake off as much of the excess water as possible, then leave to dry on a dish towel.
In a mixing bowl toss the noodles with the dressing, mango, eggplant, half the herbs and the onion. Set aside for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature or refrigerate if longer. When ready to serve, add the rest of the herbs and mix well, then pile on a plate or in a bowl.
Recipe: Linguini And Spinach With Smoked Salmon, Avocado And Gingery Almond-Lime Dressing
This dish has a vaguely Japanese inspiration, but then veers into deliciously inauthentic territory. The noodles, blanched spinach, smoked salmon and avocado make for a lovely combination with just a splash of soy sauce and squeeze of lime, but if you want to add a bit more interest, go for the almond butter dressing.
Make 2 to 3 servings
1/4 cup almond butter
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1/2-inch knob ginger, grated
1 clove garlic, pressed
2-4 tablespoons water, as needed
Salt, to taste
8 ounces whole wheat linguini noodles
1 bunch spinach, washed and trimmed
Sesame oil or any neutral oil
8 ounces smoked salmon, flaked into bits
1 avocado, sliced
Sesame seeds (black make for a nice contrast)
Set a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove, and set a strainer in the sink. While the water's heating, prepare the dressing.
In a small bowl, mix together the almond butter, lime zest, lime juice, ginger and garlic. Add the water, starting with the smaller amount and adding more as needed, until you get a thick-yet-pourable consistency. Season to taste with salt and set aside.
When the water has reached a boil, add the noodles and cook until done, according to package instructions. Turn off the flame, add the spinach and stir it under the water surface until it is submerged and turns bright green and shrinks down (this should happen almost instantly). Pour the noodles and spinach into the strainer, and run a bit of cold water over them to stop the cooking, tossing to make sure they cool evenly. Transfer the noodles and spinach to a bowl and toss with the splash of oil to prevent them from sticking.
To serve, portion the pasta and noodles onto serving plates (or place in a large serving dish), and top with the salmon, avocado and sesame seeds. Serve with the dressing on the side.
Recipe: Southeast Asian Shrimp And Rice Noodle Salad
This salad has that addictive sour-salty-spicy-sweet balance common to Southeast Asian cuisine, packing a lot of flavor into a light tangle of rice noodles. Add the peanuts as you serve it to keep them nice and crunchy.
Makes 3 servings
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1/4 cup chopped herbs — cilantro, basil, mint or any combination of the three
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon brown or granulated sugar
4 ounces thin rice noodles (also sold as rice vermicelli)
1 teaspoon high-heat oil, such as canola or grapeseed
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled
1/2 head green or savoy cabbage, finely shredded
Roasted peanuts, chopped
In a small dish, mix together the dressing ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed, then set aside to let the shallots mellow.
To make the salad, cook the rice noodles according to the package directions, then drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. While they are cooking, heat a large skillet on a high heat. Add the oil and cook the shrimp until pink and done, just a few minutes per side. Remove from heat.
To assemble the salad, place the cabbage at the bottom of a serving bowl, then top with the noodles. Add the shrimp, top with the dressing and garnish with peanuts.
Recipe: Cold Ramen Noodle Salad
Patrick Fleming, at Portland's Boke Bowl, is known for his homemade ramen soup. But in summer, he also offers Japanese cold noodle dishes (with deliciously cooling crunchy vegetables). Fleming marinates his noodles in a lemon soy sauce and serves a separate sesame sauce at the table. But for summertime ease, this recipe combines the two into one.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
1 pound fresh Asian noodles (found in the refrigerated section at Asian markets or well-stocked supermarkets) — ramen, yakisoba or buckwheat — cooked and cooled
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup arugula
4 green onions minced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 English cucumber, diced
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half
1/2 pound marinated baked tofu or cooked pork, cut into bite-size pieces.
1/4 cup sesame tahini
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon prepared Chinese mustard
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon red chile bean paste
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3/4 cup light or low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup water
2 green onions, minced
For the dressing, in a medium bowl, mix together the tahini, brown sugar, mustard, ginger, garlic, chile paste, rice vinegar, lemons and sesame oil until smooth. Gradually add the soy sauce, whisking to combine, and add the water until it reaches a thick-yet-pourable consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings, then stir in the green onions.
In a large bowl, place the noodles, bean sprouts, arugula and green onions, top with half the dressing and toss to combine well. Let marinate for a few minutes at least (longer is nicer) at room temperature. To serve, transfer the noodles to a serving dish or individual plates. Top with a portion of the remaining salad ingredients and serve with the remaining dressing for drizzling on top.