Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Favorite Pasta Salad

tri-color pasta
So here's the thing, I know pasta salads are kind of out of style. If you're like me, over forty and a product of the American Heartland, you've probably had endless variations of the macaroni salad we all grew up eating at church potlucks, picnics, and backyard barbecues. And later, we all ate more than our share of bland, soggy-noodled, vinaigrette-drenched weird pasta things off of restaurant and buffet salad bars, in the eighties and nineties.

And every time I put one of those salads on my plate, I regretted it later, and couldn't help but think of ways it could have, should have, and might be better-tasting and prettier.

Because I like pasta, and I like salad, so it didn't seem like such a difficult thing to combine those into something both tasty and attractive. So I started experimenting at home. One of the things I decided was that, while mayonnaise-based dressings certainly have their place, that place isn't on any kind of pasta except maybe macaroni. One of the other things I noticed right off is that cheaping out on ingredients is never, ever a good idea. Mediocre ingredients combine to make mediocre food.

I still love this pasta salad. And it keeps marvelously in the fridge.

1 lb of tri-colored rotini pasta, cooked al dente, drained, and set aside to cool
1 cup or so of raw broccoli washed and divided into bite-sized florets
1/2 cup or so, finely chopped red onion
1/2 cup or so of chopped red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup or so of sliced black olives
1 cup or so of those little sweet grape tomatoes
1 cup or so of shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup or so of good quality sliced pepperoni, hard salami, or a mixture thereof
1 ripe but not squishy avocado, chopped (I usually serve this on the side, unless I know the entire salad is going to be disposed of in a single sitting) Don't add the avocado until right before you serve the salad, in any event.

Once your pasta is cool, toss all the ingredients together in a big bowl. Be gentle. You don't want mashed pasta. If it looks like it could use a little more of your favorite ingredient, don't be shy. Add it in!

This isn't hard, either. I typically will cheat, and start with a package of seasoning mix for oil and vinegar style Italian salad dressings. Use good olive oil, look at the directions then cut the amount of called-for oil in half. Combine with a yummy wine vinegar, about as much as the directions call for, then add another good splash or two.  ETA: Add a good rounded spoonful of a country-style dijon mustard. I like the coarse-ground, your mileage my vary. (Thanks for reminding me, Mom!) The dressing should taste so good you want to drink the stuff. Then pour it over the mixed salad ingredients and toss again, so the pasta is thoroughly coated.

It's edible at this stage. In fact, it's pretty good, really. It's even better if you can stand to wait a couple of hours, though, so the pasta has absorbed some of the flavors of the stronger ingredients and the dressing.

Ready to serve it? This is the cool part, and the step that separates a dish that's really pretty from a dish that's just, well, a bowl of food. Take a few of those slices of pepperoni, maybe some lengthwise slices of avocado, and do a simple pattern on the top of the bowl. The design won't last beyond the first serving, but who cares? It's a simple touch that indicates you're delighted with making a dish, you're happy to serve a dish, and you take pride in what you've done.

Also, that you like to play with your food.


Janet said...

Sounds very good. I actually made a rotini salad last night that had my family raving, and I did use mayo. Homemade mayo, mind you, pureed together with a ripe avocado and lots of fresh garlic and a good splash of wine vinegar. So you see, it had some important points of similarity with yours.

I used feta and coarsely chopped walnuts, plus an assortment of fresh veggies, in this case, tomato, yellow and green bell peppers, and chopped green onions. I've been given orders to make it again. And to put in more avocado.

But first, I think I'll try your version.


Mac said...

OMG YUM! I'm so making your version, too. We'll have to compare notes. *g*

Lynanne said...

Ok, they both sound really good, although I have to admit, I have had Mac's version - and yes YUM. Now I think I have to go to the store, my plans for dinner have changed.

Barbara said...

Mac, did you forget the dijon mustard in the dressing or leave it our deliberately? Your original dressing here at home had about a rounded tsp of country style dijon. Really gives it a distinctive tang.

Mac said...

I DID forget the dijon mustard in the dressing! Thank you, I KNEW it wasn't quite right!

Den said...

You could also make a capresa pasta salad (sliced mozzarella and ultra fresh and sweet tomatoes, black olives pickled in sea salt (italian style), basil leaves and fresh pesto sauce) over your plain pasta al dente covered only with extra-virgin olive oil and medium sized ground sea salt (from your mill). Add also ground salt and white pepper plus olive oil to your capresa at the end). This is the only pasta salad I've ever tried; one day I was on my own and wanted to do something easy and fast I came up with that and it was good... You are so right about the vinager flavored pasta salads, I cannot stand it...
Another version is to put on your pasta broccoli, yellow and orange thinly sliced carrots, and collard greens slightly braised with olive oil and onions-garlic. Cover dish with raisins, chopped mint leaves, chopped fresh tomatoes, ground salt and olive oil. Note: saute the onion first until golden and then put your vegetables and put the collard green leaves at the end; cover for some seconds until it's tender but still with a nice green color). I made up this today improvising with the garden vegetables and it was good...