Most of us have some sort of preconceived idea of what we think of a pasta salad, and that idea isn’t always flattering. There are the mayo-heavy renditions we’ve all avoided at picnics and the overcooked swirling noodles loaded with antipasto ingredients. Being from the Midwest, the only pasta salad I grew up with was an elbow noodle salad made with Miracle Whip.
But a good pasta salad can be the centerpiece of the party, bringing together bouncy noodles with juicy, summery vegetables, fragrant herbs, and a well-rounded citrus vinaigrette. A pasta salad should be the best of both worlds: a true representation of pasta and salad.
My Easy Pasta Salad leverages these strengths by using simple ingredients and seasoning each component individually for maximum impact. And perhaps most importantly, the only thing you actually have to cook is the pasta. No one wants to spend a lot of time or effort sweating over a stove on a hot summer day, which is why I load mine up with seasonal produce from the market, pickled condiments and classic Italian cheeses. It’s a must-have summer dinner or a complementary side dish to pair with main courses like foolproof grilled chicken or spicy salmon skewers. Here are some of the things that make this the perfect summer pasta salad.
Pasta with just enough chewiness
I’m a big fan of orecchiette and have found it to be just about the perfect shape for a pasta salad. It is shaped like a small dome and usually has a bit more chewy texture than some other shapes. This lends itself well to staying al dente even while it soaks in the dressing. The size and shape allow the noodles to nestle up against all the other additions without crushing them. Don’t forget to salt your cooking water – it’s your best chance to season the pasta from the inside. Drain the pasta thoroughly when it reaches an al dente texture to prevent the final product from being soggy.
keep it colorful
My pasta salad includes vegetables; lots of vegetables. Sweet, plump cherry tomatoes add a sour sweetness, and several types of sliced summer squash add a juicy crunch. Kalamata olives deliver a rich, punchy bitterness. The torn fresh mozzarella adds a nice buttery, greasy texture, while the grated Parmesan cheese adds depth and creaminess to the umami. Showering on the fresh basil and oregano just before serving preserves the fresh potency offered by the herbs.
Build the dressing as you go
Instead of mixing the dressing all at once and pouring it in at the end, I like to build this dressing as I go. This helps develop the flavor of each component for a more balanced finished dish. The recipe begins by quickly marinating the red onion and zucchini in lemon juice, lemon zest and a little red wine vinegar. Massaging the red onion and zucchini with acid, salt and grated garlic helps break down the structure of the vegetables. The onion becomes less intense and the zucchini begins to soften releasing some water.
Once these items have a bit of time to marinate, I like to add the still hot pasta along with the olive oil and parmesan to create a light creaminess without overpowering. Adding the herbs and mozzarella at the end will keep the mozzarella from melting and keep the herbs vibrant.
If in doubt, exchange it
You are only limited by your creativity when it comes to riffing this dish. You don’t have an orecchiette? Try the fusilli or the gemelli. Instead of mozzarella, try cutting small pieces of provolone or Monterey Jack. Swap out what you like, whether it’s snow peas, cucumbers or rainbow chard for vegetables.
Put your extra herbs to work and add some mint or parsley. Play around with different acids like white wine vinegar or balsamic. Try adding a can of chickpeas or cannellini beans to boost the protein content for a heartier meal. Swap out different olives like castelvetrano or another brine ingredient, like capers. Be bold and ready to experiment!