Pasta salads go way beyond macaroni salad. They can be as sophisticated as chilled smoked salmon and crème fraîche with angel hair pasta or as robust as grilled summer vegetables with penne.
Like other salads, pasta salads generally are composed of fresh ingredients that may or may not be raw. These usually include at least one vegetable and the salad is dressed with a sauce that contains an acidic ingredient such as vinegar or lemon juice.
Beyond these restraints, just about anything goes when it comes to pasta salads.
When most of us think of pasta salad, we think of creamy macaroni salad. This mainstay of picnics and summer lunches is made with a mayonnaise-based dressing, which is tossed with cooked macaroni and vegetables such as celery, bell peppers, and scallions.
If you prefer, classic macaroni salad can be made with yogurt in place of all or some of the mayonnaise, with a mild vinaigrette, and with a variety of fresh vegetables.
Cold sesame noodles have, over the past few years, taken their rightful place as a classic cold pasta dish. For traditional sesame noodles, use Asian rice or buckwheat noodles and base the sauce on tahini rather than peanut butter. For a more accessible dish, home cooks use fettuccini, linguine, or spaghetti dressed with a sauce made from peanut butter, soy sauce, and sesame oil.
Pasta with pesto is another favorite heartily adopted by Americans but with deep roots in another culture. Pesto, the uncooked Mediterranean sauce made with basil, olive oil, garlic, pinenuts, and Parmesan cheese, is delicious tossed with chilled strand pasta, such as vermicelli or capellini.
Some Other Ideas
Beyond the expected is a world of taste sensations.Toss cooled, cooked pasta with chunks of cheese, chopped salty olives, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, grilled eggplant, thin-sliced steak or chicken, sautéed mushrooms, broiled fish, shrimp, scallops, or mussels. The list is practically endless.
Dress these salads with vinaigrettes made with extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, walnut oil, or sesame oil mixed with wine vinegars, lemon juice, or lime juice. Give them personality with soy sauce, full-flavored stocks, hot pepper sauce, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and fresh, minced herbs.
Tips for the Perfect Salad
Cook the pasta so that it is tender yet firm. Drain and then let it cool to room temperature (or rinse it with cold water to speed the process) before you toss it with the other ingredients. If you want, hold the cooked pasta in the refrigerator for several hours.
It's best to put the dressing in the bowl, add the cooled pasta, and toss until well mixed. Add the other ingredients at this point and toss again.
Although you can make and refrigerate pasta salads in advance of serving, it's advisable to let them sit at room temperature for a while. Taste and adjust the seasonings before you serve them.
Pasta, like rice, beans, and grains, absorbs liquid. This means that as it sits, the pasta will soak up the dressing and you may feel the need to add more before serving. Instead, if you know the salad will sit for a while, dress the salad a little more heavily than you would if you were serving it right away.