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Pasta salad is the wallflower of summer foods: It almost always makes it to the barbecue, but no one quite remembers who invited it. At its plainest—elbow noodles, mayonnaise, a careless scattering of celery and onions—it is the embodiment of the midcentury American fear of flavor. Perhaps even worse is the “new school” pasta salad, which emerged in the ‘80s. It looks good: It’s made with multicolored tortellini or fusilli in a thin, sweet vinaigrette and then gussied up with colorful canned olives and raw peppers or broccoli—garnishes that are the food equivalent of moussed bangs and shiny pouf skirts that can’t make up for a fundamental lack of charisma. But pasta salad doesn’t have to be mediocre. Anyone who has stood fridgeside nibbling at last night’s lasagna knows that cold pasta has a certain appeal—it’s just a question of getting the flavors right. At its best, pasta salad can get out there and party with the stars of the cookout: the steaks and salmon, the grilled corn and the caprese salads.
Pasta salad’s problems stem, in part, from a lack of respect. When it comes to pasta, Americans look to Italy for approbation, but cold noodles are not particularly popular there. Food corporations like Kraft churn out pasta-salad mixes that seem to be little more than cross-marketing gambits for their processed meat brands. Although fans of Hawaiian plate lunches might disagree with me, macaroni salad isn’t an American populist classic like barbecued ribs or even coleslaw. Nor is it considered fancy enough for the aspiring backyard gourmand. On this season’s Top Chef, one of the contestants, Zoi Antonitsas, expressed disgust when called upon to make pasta salad for a neighborhood block party. (The judges, in turn, were visibly disgusted by her efforts).
Personally, however, I’ve had a lot of luck with pasta salads, perhaps because I’ve worked for a few high-end delis in my day. There’s a diverse tradition of cold noodle dishes from Asia, including Japanese soba with soy dipping sauce, cold and pickly Korean noodle soups, and Sichuan-style dan dan noodles. Working in a broadly Cal-Mediterranean style, the key to a good cold noodle dish is attentive seasoning, both with salt and with more aromatic ingredients like fresh herbs and scallions. It’s time to rescue the dish from its shrinking-violet status. Here, then, is my pasta salad manifesto, designed to make the world a better place for cold noodles.
- Start with dried (not fresh) noodles, prepared al dente. (If cooking in an Asian vein, then soba or cellophane noodles work well.) Cool them off quickly by rinsing them in cold water in a colander. Or, my preferred method: After draining, toss the noodles with olive oil, lay them in a single layer on a sheet pan, and cool them in the fridge.
- The main elements of a pasta salad should be oily in character, not vinagery. This is essential—most deli pasta salads have a pinched quality that comes from a bland vinaigrette. Balsamic vinegar is a double disaster since it darkens the noodles, resulting in an unappealing color. It’s far better to use fragrant olive oil plus other rich ingredients like smoked salmon or tuna in oil, oil-cured olives, or homemade pesto. Instead of vinegar, lemon juice is all you need to offset these lush flavors. (Butter, by the way, is not a good fat in pasta salads since it will congeal when chilled.)
- Avoid tortellini. Store-bought tortellini are tragic enough when served warm, but are downright foul served cold and congealed with little nuggets of parmesan-addled sausage to gnaw on.
- Though it is a beloved standard, I’ve found that elbow macaroni is a loser, too—it has a tendency to get floppy. Better to choose a dried noodle in a smallish shape, like orzo, penne, orchiette, farfalle, or fusilli.
- Mayonnaise is not a good idea. I don’t think I need to say much about the standard jarred-mayonnaise-and-elbow-noodle pasta salad—it serves only to make the other dishes at a cookout look good. But even homemade mayonnaise—delicious in other summer salads—is not ideal. The noodles themselves don’t have enough character to offset the creamily diffuse quality of the mayonnaise. Someone might be able to convince me that I’m wrong with a sufficiently interesting mayonnaise like, say, homemade green goddess dressing. But something that lovely is better expended on a truly indulgent dish like lobster salad.
- Ranch dressing is a mayonnaise substitute and should therefore not be used, either.
- Too many potluck chefs go for a “festive” look with lots of crudités like red peppers, broccoli, and carrot shreds, which add very little other than color. Vegetables are great in pasta salads, but on the whole, they should be cooked. (Possible exceptions: finely diced red onions, slivered scallions, and cherry tomatoes.) Before chopping them up and tossing them in your salad, roast your red peppers, grill your radicchio and your asparagus, and at least blanch your broccoli.
- Tender herbs like chives, dill, mint, basil, cilantro, and Italian parsley are the magic ingredients in a good pasta salad—use a little more than you think you need, and add them close to serving time. Be very, very, careful with more aggressive herbs like oregano or rosemary, and never use dried herbs.
- Another secret ingredient in pasta salads: a light, tangy cheese like feta, manouri, fresh chèvre, or ricotta salata, which give an acidic balance to the salad without the pucker of vinegar. Parmesan is OK, but it doesn’t add a creamy element as the others do and might be just a hair too serious for the occasion.
- Pasta salads need compelling ingredients and textures, but not too many—three or four “interesting” ingredients should do it. Think smoked salmon, finely diced red onions, and chives; or grilled broccoli raab, slivered black olives, and hardboiled egg; or grilled mushrooms, ricotta salata, and chopped parsley. Roasted red peppers, basil, grilled lamb, and feta work well together, too.
- There is a golden moment when pasta salad has sat long enough for flavors to meld, but not so long that the whole affair gets soggy. I can’t tell you exactly how long this takes, but it is on the order of 3-4 hours. Stir in fresh herbs and any crunchy bits like pine nuts or fried capers shortly before serving.
- Don’t forget to taste your creation one more time before putting it on the picnic table. You’ll probably need to use more salt than you think (I like kosher salt for this kind of seasoning), so keep tasting and seasoning as you go along.
At most summer barbecues, it’s a pleasant surprise if the guests manage to choke down half the pasta salad. But don’t let this fact discourage you from putting my advice into practice. When you do pull together a delicious batch, you’ll have the double blessing of good flavor and low expectations. And once you’ve taken on pasta salad, you’ll be prepared for other, equally challenging picnic makeovers—yeah, I’m looking at you, potato salad.