By Chris Watson
Every summer the debate rages about pasta salad. Mayo or vinaigrette? Or more refined, mayo or Miracle Whip? Even more refined? Duke’s or Hellman’s? Then there is meat or just veggie? Cheese or no cheese? Above all, how long has that pasta salad been sitting out? Getting sick at a picnic is awkward, at best. Of course, there is also the problem with pasta salad “creep.” We all start out trying to make six servings and we end up feeding a township.
Even with all this “controversy” pasta salad is something that can be easily made in smaller quantities and made at room temperature so that the spoilage factor is greatly reduced. It can be healthy, safe, and
a worthy edition to any meal, outdoors or otherwise.
A Pasta Salad Base
The easiest and quickest pasta salad is with a vinaigrette (see our vinaigrette post here). Disclaimer: we like white and creamy pasta salads as well…they deserve their own, focused discussion. In a previous discussion of pasta, we recommended 3 oz. of dry pasta per person. For pasta salad, we recommend 2 oz. per person. A good-sized pasta salad for a household of 2 starts with 6 oz. (or 3 servings). This gives healthy portions plus a left over or two for lunch.
You can use any kind of pasta. The tri-colored pasta is popular because it is colorful and a bit healthier (higher fiber content). There are huge varieties of higher fiber, lower glycemic, even gluten free pastas on the market. They will all do fine for a pasta salad. The key is to cook the pasta in salted water to the low end of the time frame (most recommended times have a range like 9-11 minutes), then remove and drain. DO NOT RINSE. Once the pasta is drained place in a bowl for coating.
To complete your pasta salad base, you will need 1 cup of vinaigrette. Yes, you can buy a commercial brand. However, vinaigrettes are so easy that making your own is a healthier and superior option. The vinaigrette you will need is a 3:1 style vinaigrette (3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar). While the pasta is boiling take 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp. white vinegar, and place in a small bowl. Liberally salt and pepper (remember this isn’t going on a salad but over pasta). Us a garlic press (or mash on a board) 1 clove of garlic (or you can use up to ½ tsp of garlic powder in a pinch). Slowly add ¾ of a cup of good olive oil until you have formed the vinaigrette. Don’t overthink the dressing…keep it simple!
Finally, when the pasta is drained and still HOT add about ½ the vinaigrette and toss. Let the pasta cool to room temperature. You may need to incorporate a little more of the vinaigrette depending on the pasta.
You are done. From this pasta base you can build about any type of pasta salad you want. And remember this bonus: this is a low spoilage pasta. Serving this at room temperature is perfectly acceptable.
The Add Ins
Once you have your base you can do almost anything with this pasta. Certainly you can add fresh ingredients like onions, celery, radishes, mushrooms tomatoes and herbs. Keeping a pasta salad vegan is simple. Just toss in some extra vinaigrette to coat the vegetables.
You can also then add cheese (obviously parmesan or Romano grated or small chunks of mozzarella or cheddar), meats like salami, ham and/or peperoni, plus a whole range of olives, pickles, and peppers. This is where the “pasta salad creep” comes in. You aren’t just adding flavor, you are adding bulk.
Don’t stop with the usual, however. The recipe presented is the pasta salad base with grilled vegetables. The vegetables could easily be sautéed as well. You can also use jarred roasted red peppers or a favorite of sundried tomatoes. Many of these jarred products come in their own oil and can be used as part of the oil for the vinaigrette. For the adventurous you can also incorporate high end canned tuna, chilled shrimp, even smoked salmon.
One final caveat: the ingredients you add to the basic pasta may affect its spoilage factor and/or how well it will hold during a picnic. So, choose accordingly. Fresh vegies, olives, pickles, and a hard cheese like parmesan are hold up really well. Meats and soft cheeses will demand keeping your pasta salad on ice.
- 6 oz dry pasta
- 2 tbs balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbs white or cider vinegar
- ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic mashed
- salt and pepper to taste
- Vegetables to grill or lightly sauté like onions, peppers, asparagus, squash, zucchini, etc
- ½ to ¾ cup of hard cheese grated (optional)
- Olives, pickled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers cut into bit sized pixies (optional)
- Hard meats like ham, salami, and pepperoni, cut into bit sized pieces (optional)
- Boil pasta and cook according to the directions to the lowest time suggested in the instructions. Thoroughly drain pasta but DO NOT RINSE.
- Mix vintagers, garlic, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil and whisk vigorously to make a 3:1 vinaigrette.
- While pasta is hot, pour about ½ of the vinaigrette on the pasta and toss. Let completely absorb and cool to room temperature
- Grill or lightly sauté the vegetables. They should still have a good, firm texture. Allow to cool to room temperature and cut into bite sized pieces
- Add vegetables and any other optional add ins to the cooled pasta. Adjust the dressing with left over vinaigrette as needed for taste. Add salt and pepper if necessary