Pasta salad is a great summertime dish

Pasta primavera with feta, orange peppers, green onion and corn. BY JACK CLEMONS
June 17, 2013

Pasta salad is one of my favorite one-dish summer meals. Not the all-too-common flaccid macaroni elbows in a watery mayonnaise, but toothy pasta tossed with colorful vegetables and dressed with layers of flavors, combining sharp and soft with tender and bold. This is an easy meal to pull together after a hot day at the beach or long day at the office. Best of all, you won’t need to stop at the grocery, just take advantage of what you have on hand.

As a start, consider the salad in the photo. Thick ribbons of whole-wheat fettuccine were cooked until al dente - translated as “to the tooth” and meaning cooked through, but remaining firm and sturdy to the bite. After the pasta is drained, it’s tossed with chunks of feta cheese, which start to melt against the warm pasta strands.

For color interest we’ve added sautéed vegetables (bell pepper, green onion and tomatoes) and dressed everything with Balsamic vinaigrette. We ate this for lunch while it was still slightly warm and fragrant from the spicy onion and bright tomatoes.

The key to a successful pasta salad is selecting a size and shape of pasta that balances with the rest of the ingredients. As you may have discovered, there’s often logic behind choosing a specific pasta style to pair with a specific pasta sauce. One you’ve likely encountered on restaurant menus is the angled ends and ridged surfaces of slender penne tubes, which are well designed to successfully draw in and hold onto basil pesto sauce.

As a rule of thumb, the more delicate pasta shapes are best for oil-based sauces; wider strands and sturdier tubes are best for creamy or thick sauces. Small sizes and shapes (orzo, alphabets or pastina) are well suited for soups. And, if a shape is best eaten with a stabbing fork action, it’s a good match for a sauce with chunky pieces of meat or vegetables. That being said, you can always ignore the guidelines and mix together whatever you like best.

One feature of the pasta salad recipes included here is their versatility. You can serve them at room temperature as soon as they’ve been assembled or chill them for a later meal. Alternatively, heat some olive oil in a skillet and toss in the leftover salad, cooking until the cheese is bubbling and the pasta is quite hot (for a richer sauce, toss in a little more cheese).

In each of these recipes, the cheese is added to the hot pasta, integrating the flavors so the cheese becomes a focal point of the dish, rather than a garnish sprinkled over the top. Here’s the place to select soft cheeses - chèvre, feta, mozzarella - ones that will melt more easily than block cheeses like Parmesan or cheddar.

All three lovely combinations of texture and flavor can be endlessly adapted to your personal taste by substitutions; for example, tarragon or lemon thyme will add a distinctive flavor quite different from basil or chives. The amount of oil is much smaller than when dressing a lettuce salad because you’re using the moisture from the other ingredients. If your salad seems too dry, save some of the pasta water to add with the dressing, if necessary.

Now for our lunch this afternoon, I’m going to check the crisper, the cheese drawer and the cupboard to put together today’s pasta salad.

Feta Pasta Salad

8 oz pasta
1 C feta
1 yellow bell pepper
1 bunch green onions
2 tomatoes
3 T olive oil, divided
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1/4 t oregano
1/2 t basil
salt & pepper, to taste
1 t snipped chives

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions for al dente; drain in a colander. Toss cooked pasta with feta cheese in a serving bowl; cover with aluminum foil and set aside. Core and chop the bell pepper; set aside. Slice the green onions; set aside. Chop the tomatoes; set aside. Heat 1 T of olive oil in a skillet and add the chopped vegetables. Sauté over medium until softened and fragrant. Whisk together remaining 2 T olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, oregano and basil. Add to pasta along with vegetables, tossing to combine thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper; garnish with chives. Yield: 4 servings.

Chèvre Broccoli Pasta Salad

1 bunch broccoli
1/2 C chopped walnuts
1/4 C olive oil
8 oz orecchiette
4 oz chèvre*
1 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 minced shallot
salt & pepper, to taste
red pepper flakes (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside. Trim off broccoli florets, reserving stems for another use. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli and walnuts with the olive oil, mixing thoroughly to coat. Spread mixture on prepared baking sheet in a single layer. Roast, turning once, until broccoli starts to brown, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain and place in a serving bowl with chèvre. Toss until cheese melts; cover with foil. When broccoli mixture is ready, add to pasta along with olive oil, lemon juice and shallot. Adjust seasonings to taste and garnish with red pepper flakes. Yield: 4 servings. *Note, goat cheese logs are sold with peppercorn and herb crusts as well as plain; any of them will work well in this salad.

Artichoke & Mozzarella Pasta Salad

8 oz rotini pasta
6 oz fresh mozzarella
1/3 C diced sun-dried red pepper
2/3 C chopped artichoke hearts
1/3 C sliced kalamata olives
1 T olive oil
2 T rice wine vinegar
1/2 t Dijon mustard
1 minced shallot
1 minced garlic clove
salt & pepper, to taste
basil for garnish

Cook the pasta according to package instructions for al dente. Drain and place in a serving bowl; toss with mozzarella. Stir in red pepper, artichoke hearts and olives. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour dressing over pasta mixture. Toss to coat thoroughly and season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped basil. Yield: 4 servings.

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