The perfect pasta salad doesn't need a recipe. Case in point: My favorite is spiral pasta mixed with thin slices of hard salami, slices of red, yellow and/or green pepper, chopped red onions, capers and zesty Italian dressing. There are no set amounts of ingredients. I just add and taste as I go. Like many pasta salads, it's best made a few hours in advance to allow the flavors to marry, but I doubt there could be any pasta salad more tasty and simple.
But there are a few key points to follow when making pasta salad. Some pastas are better for salads, while others make for better slurping when spaghetti's on the menu.
* Requisite shapes: The right pasta shape is the key to more flavor per forkful. Just like the spiral pasta in my favorite pasta salad, using pasta with grooves and curves allows the dressing, cheeses and other ingredients to stick easily to pasta so you can enjoy a taste with every bite. Fusilli, orecchiette, spiral, farfalle and those cute little shell-shaped pasta, conchiglie, are good choices.
* Cooking time: There's nothing worse than mushy pasta salad, so cook the pasta to a nice, slightly chewy, al dente stage. And salt the water to taste, but not overly so. The rule of thumb says it should not taste saltier than the sea, probably a little less so.
* Finishing touch: To rinse or not to rinse? There are two schools of thought on this topic. Rinsing the pasta in cold water stops the cooking process right away and also washes away the starch so the pasta doesn't turn gummy. But it's this very starch that helps the dressing stick to the pasta better. I tend to wash the pasta just so it won't stick together. The grooves in your pasta should be enough to hold onto the dressing and other ingredients. There's nothing better than a lovely little caper tucked inside the folds of a piece of pasta when you take a bite.
I've already written my favorite combination in detail for you above, but here are some more ideas I've tried that, just as the one I earlier described, need no recipe.
* Orzo pasta with cucumbers, capers, feta cheese, fresh dill and a drizzle of lemon juice. This is a refreshing, clean salad that allows flavors to come through — not covered up with heavy dressings.
* This salad mixture needs no dressing at all — just fusilli with grilled asparagus, basil pesto, toasted pine nuts, feta cheese, scallions and parsley.
* Orecchiette with a mustard dressing, garlic, marinated artichoke hearts, cannellini beans and kernels of fresh corn to add a nice crunch.
If you don't feel comfortable without a recipe, here's one I found online several years ago that I make from time to time. I don't follow the recipe anymore. I just make sure to have all the ingredients and taste as I go. The best pasta salads are ones that are full of color and texture — and made to your liking. Leave out what you don't like — maybe the olives? — and add more of what you do — like grape tomatoes or a bit more basil.
Pretty Pasta Salad
12 ounces small pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried dill
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 large basil leaves, minced
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 English cucumber, cut in fourths lengthwise and sliced
20 Kalamata olives, sliced in half
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (see note)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, and rinse with cool water for a few seconds. Set aside. Meanwhile, in a large serving bowl, stir together olive oil, vinegar, dill, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Stir in pasta. Add basil, tomatoes, cucumber and olives, and stir gently to combine. Fold in goat cheese just before serving.
Note: If goat cheese isn't to your liking, substitute feta.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.