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Pasta Perfect: Say aloha to mediorcre, cold, soggy messes trying to be salads

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Tomatoes are marinated with capers, garlic, basil and olive oil until they almost fall apart in this paseta salad.

When was the last time a pasta salad made you swoon?

Mediocre ones abound. You can find them — floppy farfalle studded with red pepper and corn — at barbecues and potlucks, all summer long.

But a gorgeous mix of well-seasoned vegetables and al dente pasta that’s glistening with good olive oil, citrus and herbs? That’s rarer than a perfectly grilled steak (which you might even ignore should a truly excellent pasta salad appear on your plate).

Before pasta salads hit the supermarket salad bar circuit, they were glamorous things.

According to food historian Betty Fussell, the pasta salad craze began in The New York Times in 1978. That was when Craig Claiborne, the food editor, featured a recipe for Cold Pasta New Orleans Style that adorned cooked pasta with garlic vinaigrette, chopped chicken, beets, black olives and artichoke hearts. His recipe was a marked upgrade from the coleslaw-like, mayonnaise-based macaroni salads that were the previous cold pasta standard.

An avalanche of fancy pasta salads followed in the 1980s and ’90s. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck enthused about their versatility.

Even Alice Waters is a fan. In her book, “Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone” (Random House, 1984), she offers three pasta salad variations — with fried bread crumbs, with fresh tomatoes and herbs, and with eggplant, garlic and peppers — all of which sound far more appealing than the pesto-drenched fusilli of today.

But, recent sad salads aside, there’s absolutely no reason pasta salad can’t reclaim its short-lived glory. When thoughtfully made with really good ingredients, pasta salad can (and should) be divine — the fresh and sprightly sleeper hit of your next summer soiree.

These recipes are a good place to start. There’s a tortellini salad, with a creamy green goddess dressing that’s heady with herbs and scallions; a zippy jumble of chewy farro and orzo, tossed with dried apricots, goat cheese and mint; a juicy summer tomato pasta salad scented with garlic and basil; and finally, a template for classic balsamic-dressed pasta salad, with mozzarella and cucumbers, that you can make your very own.

Because pasta salad is a make-ahead dish only to a point, some last-minute tinkering — a ruffle of fresh herbs, a drizzle of great olive oil and a dusting of flaky sea salt — is what lifts your pasta salad from the quotidian to the sublime. Which is exactly where good pasta salads deserve to be.

DO IT RIGHT

Before you start cooking, learn these rules for making pasta salad:

>> Don’t overcook your pasta: This the first and most vital rule. If you drain it while still al dente (it should have a spine to it when you bite down), it won’t turn to mush as it sits in the dressing.

>> Don’t rinse pasta: Just drain it and add it to your dressing right after cooking, while it’s hot. The oil in the dressing will keep the noodles from sticking.

>> Let pasta cool in the dressing: It will absorb the most flavor this way.

>> Add crunchy vegetables just before serving: They will stay crisp and fresh.

PASTA SALAD WITH SUMMER TOMATOES, BASIL AND OLIVE OIL

By Melissa Clark

  • 2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup drained capers or sliced olives
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely grated or mashed to a paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
  • 1 large basil sprig, plus 1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves
  • 3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 1 pound short pasta, such as campanelle, fusilli or farfalle

In a large bowl, toss together tomatoes, capers, garlic, salt, pepper, red-pepper flakes, basil sprig and anchovies if using. Let sit 5 minutes, then stir in oil. Taste; add salt and pepper if needed (tomatoes should be aggressively seasoned). Let sit at least 1 hour, preferably 2 to 3.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just al dente, usually a minute less than package instructions specify. Drain well. Add to bowl with tomatoes while still warm; toss well. Let pasta cool, soaking up dressing.

Let sit at room temperature at least another hour and up to 6 hours. Or chill up to 24 hours; bring to room temperature before serving.

Just before serving, gently fold in torn basil leaves. Top with more olive oil and pepper. Serves 8 to 10.

LEMONY FARRO PASTA SALAD WITH GOAT CHEESE AND MINT

By Melissa Clark

  • Kosher salt, as needed
  • 1 cup farro
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 pound orzo
  • 3/4 cup diced dried apricots
  • 3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 3/4 cup thinly sliced celery
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 1 cup crumbled goat cheese
  • 1/2 cup torn mint leaves
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • >> Dressing:
  • 2 large lemons
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more to taste
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add farro and bay leaves and let simmer 15 minutes. Add orzo; simmer until farro and pasta are cooked through but still al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing: Finely grate zest from lemons; place zest in large bowl. Squeeze juice from 1-1/2 lemons and add to zest along with salt, pepper and red-pepper flakes, whisking to combine. Gradually whisk in oil. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice, if needed.

Drain farro-pasta mixture; discard bay leaves. Add to bowl with dressing; toss well. Stir in apricots. Let salad cool and soak up dressing. (Salad can be made to this point up to a day in advance. Refrigerate; bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

In a small bowl, combine onions, celery, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and a large pinch of salt. Let sit at least 20 minutes.

Just before serving, add onion mixture and almonds; toss well. Fold in spinach, goat cheese, mint and parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings. Drizzle with olive oil and pepper. Serves 10 to 14.

GREEN GODDESS PASTA SALAD

By Melissa Clark

  • Fine sea salt, as needed
  • 2 (9- to 10-ounce) packages cheese tortellini
  • 1 fennel bulb with fronds, outer layers removed
  • 1 cup sour cream or plain full-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 packed cup basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped chives
  • 2 packed tablespoons parsley leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, divided
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for serving
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to drizzle
  • 2/3 cup sliced sugar-snap peas
  • 1 cup baby arugula

In a pot of heavily salted water, cook tortellini according to package directions.

Thinly slice fennel bulb to make 3/4 cup; set aside.

To make dressing: Chop enough fennel fronds to equal 1/4 cup and put in a blender. Add sour cream, basil, chives, parsley, garlic, 1 scallion, lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt and pepper; puree until smooth. With blender running, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice, or both, if needed.

As soon as tortellini is done, drain well and put in large bowl. Immediately, while it’s still hot, toss in enough dressing to coat. Let cool at least 20 minutes, up to 4 hours.

Thinly slice remaining 2 scallions and add to tortellini. Add sliced fennel and sugar-snap peas; toss. Drizzle with more dressing, tossing if needed.

Transfer to serving bowl; gently toss in arugula, drizzle with more olive oil and freshly ground pepper. Serves 4 to 6.

CLASSIC PASTA SALAD WITH MOZZARELLA, AVOCADO AND BASIL

By Melissa Clark

  • Fine sea salt, as needed
  • 1 pound short pasta, such as campanelle, fusilli or farfalle
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 cup sliced cucumber
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-size cubes
  • 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
  • >> Dressing:
  • 3 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

>> To make dressing: In a large bowl, whisk together shallot, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Let sit 5 minutes, then whisk in oil. Taste and add more salt and/or lemon juice if needed.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just al dente, usually a minute less than package instructions specify. Drain well. While still warm, add pasta to bowl with dressing; toss well. Let pasta cool, soaking up the dressing.

In a medium bowl, gently toss together avocado, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

Just before serving, add tomato, cucumber, mozzarella and Parmesan to the bowl with the pasta and toss well. Gently fold in avocado and basil.

Drizzle with olive oil, cracked black pepper and salt before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

Nutritional analysis unavailable.

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