Most of us have some sort of preconceived notion of what we think a pasta salad is, and that notion is not always flattering. There are the mayo-heavy renditions we’ve all avoided at picnics, and overcooked twirly noodles loaded with antipasto ingredients. Being from the Midwest, the only pasta salad I grew up with was a Miracle Whip–based elbow noodle tuna salad.
But a good pasta salad can hold its own as the centerpiece of the party, bringing together bouncy noodles with juicy, summery vegetables, fragrant herbs, and a well-balanced citrusy dressing. A pasta salad should be the best of both worlds: a true representation of pasta and salad.
My Easy Pasta Salad plays up these strengths by using simple ingredients and seasoning each component individually for maximum impact. And perhaps most importantly, the only thing you actually have to cook is the pasta. No one wants to spend a lot of time or effort sweating over a stove on a hot summer day, which is why I load mine with seasonal market produce, briny condiments, and classic Italian cheeses. It’s a go-to summer dinner or a complementary side dish to pair with mains like Foolproof Grilled Chicken or Spiced Salmon Kebabs. Here are some of the elements that make this the perfect summer pasta salad.
Pasta with just the right amount of chew
I’m a huge fan of orecchiette and have found that it’s just about the perfect shape for a pasta salad. It is shaped like a small dome and typically holds a bit more of a chewy texture than some other shapes. This lends itself well to staying al dente even while it’s soaking up dressing. The size and shape allows for the noodles to snuggle up against all the other additions without overwhelming. Don’t forget to salt your cooking water—this is your best shot at seasoning the pasta from the inside out. Draining the pasta thoroughly the moment it reaches an al dente texture will prevent the final product from being soggy.
Keep it colorful
My pasta salad involves vegetables; lots of vegetables. Sweet, plump cherry tomatoes add an acidic sweetness, and several types of sliced summer squash add a juicy crunch. Kalamata olives offer a rich, punchy bitterness. Torn fresh mozzarella adds a nice buttery and fatty texture, while grated parm adds umami depth and creaminess. Showering on the fresh basil and oregano just before serving preserves the fresh potency the herbs offer.
Build the dressing as you go
Instead of mixing the dressing together at once and dumping it on at the end, I like to build that vinaigrette as I go. This helps develop the flavor for each component for a more balanced finished dish. The recipe starts off by quickly marinating the red onion and zucchini in lemon juice, lemon zest, and a splash of red wine vinegar. Massaging the red onion and zucchini with high acid, salt and grated garlic allows the structure of the vegetables to break down. The onion becomes less intense and the zucchini begins to soften as it releases a little water.
Once those elements have some time to marinate, I like to add the still-warm pasta at the same time as the olive oil and parm create a slight creaminess without overpowering. Adding the herbs and mozzarella right at the end will stop the mozzarella from melting and maintain the brightness of herbs.
When in doubt, swap it out
You are limited only by your creativity when it comes to riffing on this dish. Don’t have orecchiette? Try fusilli or gemelli. Instead of mozzarella, try cutting small chunks of provolone or Monterey Jack. Swap in whatever you love, whether that means snap peas, cucumbers, or rainbow chard for the vegetables.
Put your extra herbs to work and add some mint or parsley. Play with different acids such as white wine vinegar or balsamic. Try adding a can of chickpeas or cannellini beans to boost the protein for a more filling meal. Swap in different olives like castelvetrano—or another briney ingredient, like capers. Be bold and willing to experiment!Kelly Janke
Originally Appeared on Epicurious