Ah, it’s summer barbecue season. Ribs, corn on the cob, watermelon, baked beans, deviled eggs and homemade ice cream! Did I forget to mention pasta salad? Pasta salad always makes an appearance at summer barbecues. But, like some nerdy kid no one quite remembers inviting, pasta salad always gets pushed to the back – overlooked and forgotten. That’s because there are two schools of thought when it comes to pasta salad: the bland (featuring mayonnaise, celery and a mid-century fear of flavor) or the bold (1980’s multi-hued fusilli drowning in sweet vinaigrette). It’s this fundamental lack of charisma and/or class that has given pasta salad an inferiority complex.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Pasta salad deserves a place on the summer potluck table. But it takes more than a bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing – a good pasta salad is not simply pasta served cold. In fact, cold noodles don’t play a prominent role in Italian cooking. Though I know many Italians would happily scarf down cold, leftover pasta straight from the refrigerator. However, pasta salad is also not salad. So don’t follow the same rules or dress them as you would fresh vegetables. Acid can play an important role in balancing a good pasta salad, but vinaigrette is generally too strong to toss with pasta.
Rules for Perfect Pasta Salad
- Forget al dente. It works for hot pasta, but al dente pasta tastes like stale bread when served cold.
- Rinse the cooked pasta. I would never recommend rinsing noodles for hot pasta dishes, the starch helps makes the sauce cling. But starch can make pasta salad gloppy.
- Once rinsed toss the pasta with a little oil. Olive oil, walnut or something milder, it depends on the flavors in the pasta salad itself, but a little oil will keep cold noodles from sticking together.
- Choose a pasta that is similar in size to most of the ingredients so that you get a balance in every bite.
- Add some crunch. Even creamy pasta salad benefits with some chomp. Texture keeps a pasta salad interesting.
- Add a splash of color. Red onion, corn kernels, or cherry tomatoes have just the right charisma.
- Serve the pasta salad chilled but not cold. Pasta salad that’s still shivering from the fridge lacks both flavor and texture.