To me, pasta salad has always been a bit of a misnomer. It seems like there are so many pasta salads that end up having more pasta than green leafy vegetables, and to me, for any "salad," the opposite should be true. Other picnic and potluck favorites like potato salad and macaroni salad suffer from the same problem. But that's fine. Whatever you decide to call it, what matters in the end is how a dish tastes. Besides, the alternative "chilled pasta" just doesn't quite have the same ring as say, chilled soup — "Hey guys! Guess what I brought? Chilled pasta!" No. Just don't go there.
Pasta salad is a wonderful dish to serve at parties because it's relatively cheap and easy-to-make and can serve as either an appetizer or a side dish. And on a hot, humid summer day, nobody wants to eat hot pasta.
Now, when making pasta salad, it's important to bear in mind a few things.
First, it's generally a good idea to pick a shape that is "fork friendly" in the sense that a pasta salad made with noodles (unless it is Asian style, like Ming Tsai's recipe here) is probably a little odd and cumbersome to eat. So steer clear of using spaghetti, linguine, or fettuccine and opt instead for shapes like farfalle, penne, or orecchiette.
Next, to keep spruce up pasta salad, it's important to create a balance of textures. So a mixture of cooked vegetables (such as blanched broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or zucchini), raw vegetables (such as cucumbers, grape tomatoes, or asparagus), and crunchy garnishes (such as bacon bits, toasted pine nuts, almonds, or pumpkin seeds) will add to the wow factor, and you may just find your fellow partygoers asking for the recipe.
At the same time, try not to make a salad that has "too much going on." Maybe a salad with 12 different ingredients in addition to the pasta isn't such a good idea, since most of their flavors will get lost in the mix. And remember to cut all of the vegetables into bite-sized pieces so that people can get a nice forkful of all the elements.
Now, dressing — you'll need quite a lot of it to keep each bite flavorful. This isn't like making regular old salad with leafy greens, which everyone always says to dress sparingly, for fear of wilting the greens. This is pasta salad. For my recipe, for example, I used a six-ounce container of Greek yogurt plus ½ cup olive oil. And if using balsamic vinegar, make sure it's white balsamic vinegar so the dish doesn't turn an unattractive brown.
But, most importantly, pasta acts like a sponge. It will soak up whatever dressing you make, so make sure not to overcook the pasta or it will turn mushy when the dressing sinks in. Also, don't rinse the starch off after cooking because the starch is what helps the dressing adhere to the surface of the pasta. And, if you're planning to serve it later on in the day instead of right away, make a little extra dressing to toss in just before serving so it doesn't turn out dry.
We hope that armed with those tips, your next pasta salad will be an epicurean success. Now, here are some recipes from The Daily Meal editorial staff to get you started.
Insalata di Italia
Not to be a bit boasty or anything, but when cooking, there are a whole lot of fantastic Italian ingredients…
— Francesca Borgognone
Healthy Summer 'Pasta' Salad
But this recipe turns the notion of pasta salad on its head by replacing real pasta with zucchini ribbons…
— Ali Rosen
Pasta Salad with Asparagus, Basil, and Grape Tomatoes
The crunch of raw asparagus, the sweetness of summer tomatoes, and the peppery fragrance of basil combine to make a satisfying, delicious appetizer or side dish…
— Will Budiaman
Pesto Pasta Salad with Zucchini, Eggplant, and Snap Peas
This vibrant pasta salad showcases fresh, seasonal produce…
— Molly Aronica
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.