Pasta salads are of course a summer favorite. They fit well within the summer buffet, transport well, are
relatively simple to make, and don’t put too much pressure on the cook. It’s usually a mix of raw vegetables tossed with pasta and covered in either a mayonnaise or vinaigrette based dressing. They serve their purpose, meet everyone’s expectations, and are rarely the focal point of the meal. You take a little bit, pick at the cherry tomatoes and broccoli florets, determine that you can find something better on the buffet, and dig in to something else, like potato salad or cole slaw.
There are a few reasons that we don’t love pasta salads the way we should, and if I point them out, it gives us the opportunity to fix the problem and make it into something exceptional. So, here are my three ‘problems’ with common pasta salads, and my solutions:
First, the dressing, or the base. Mayonnaise based dressings can be too heavy, without genuine flavor or contrast. Vinaigrette dressings give your pasta salad a heavy – vinegar flavor, without really coating or providing any foundation for the salad. Therefore you need something that will coat the salad, adding a little bit of creaminess, something that has contrast (ie acid) and something bursting with flavor. And, adding a splash of color won’t hurt. I like to use a red pepper and sherry vinegar vinaigrette, thickened with croutons, honey and 1 egg. It’s my personal favorite, and provides an excellent base for your salad.
Second, the vegetables. Don’t forget, it’s pasta salad. Pasta. Vegetables need to compliment the pasta, not over power. Throwing large pieces of abrasively large and raw vegetables into your delicate pasta salad will not work. You mouth has to do too much work and the flavor and consistency of the salad will fail. So forget about the raw broccoli, pepper strips and whole cherry tomatoes. Save those for a crudite or raw salad plate. Think more along the lines of charred corn, frisee leaves, grilled mushrooms sliced thin, grilled squashes, grilled asparagus. Make sure to cut the vegetables into pieces small enough to be palatable. Ease of consumption is very important! Also, don’t be afraid to add a little cheese for added flavor. A little crumbled gorgonzola cheese can really help the salad!
Last, be careful with the pasta you choose. Using something like orzo or penette is great, large shells or rigatoni, not so much. It comes back to mouth-feel. Smaller pastas (cooked through) are more appropriate for salads.
Vegetable Salad with Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Yield: Enough for 10 portions
3 lb orzo, cooked just beyond al dente
1 can roasted red peppers, drained
1 ultra pasteurized egg yolk
1 tbsp honey
1/2 cup croutons, homemade if possible
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 1/2 cups olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 portabello mushroom caps, stems removed, gills cleaned
1 zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices
1 yellow squash, sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices
2 cups frisee, washed and woody ends trimmed
3 ears of corn
1 bunch asparagus, woody ends removed and peeled if necessary, blanched and cooled
2 avocados, sliced into 1/4 inch slices (save this for the very end)
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
Make the dressing: Place the roasted red peppers, egg yolk, honey, croutons and vinegar in a blender and puree until very smooth. Season aggressively with salt and pepper. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil. Re-season. The dressing is now ready.
Assemble the salad: Toss the mushrooms, corn, asparagus and squashes in a little vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill until everything is well charred but not burned. Let cool and slice everything into 1/4 inch slices (asparagus on a bias). Remove the kernels from the corn cobs. Toss everything in a mixing bowl with the cheese, frisee and cooked orzo. Add half the dressing and mix. Add more dressing as needed. You do not want to drown the salad in the dressing; you want to have everything evenly and lightly coated. You may not need all the dressing. Check and re-season if necessary. Assemble the salad on a platter or in a bowl and garnish with the sliced avocados. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.