Pleasing pasta salads about ratios, not recipes

Side salads, as Jan Roberts-Dominguez noted in this week’s A Fresh Approach column, easily become main dishes with a few tricks.

The same concept, of course, should apply to pasta: A side dish of starch becomes a main dish for summer potlucks with some simple additions, right? But anyone who specializes in salads knows there’s a wide gap between combining some ingredients and calling it a salad and crafting a really satisfying dish that stands out at your gathering.

I usually don’t fret too much about duplication among dishes at my potlucks, but pasta salad can be a pitfall. It seems like more cooks are shying away from mayonnaise-based potato salad in favor of oil-dressed pasta salad, but the latter can be just as generic, repeated among several bowls in the spread.

If you want your pasta salad to make a statement, first pass up common rotini, penne or bow ties. Instead choose a subtler shape, one that doesn’t necessarily scream pasta. Think rice-shaped orzo, oval orecchiette or even ditalini (basically elbow macaroni that’s half the length).

These smaller shapes are able to provide a supporting role to other fresh, colorful ingredients and won’t require as much dressing to moisten them. And because they cook quickly, you can make pasta salad in a snap. Face it, we’ve all received those last-minute potluck invitations or weathered forgetful-husband moments.

The saving grace for pasta salads, however, is their flexible nature and suitability to pantry staples. You don’t really need a recipe (although I’m going to give you some courtesy of McClatchy News Service). A successful salad is more about ratios.

If the salad is the lone dish of its kind at the event, allow about 1 cup per serving. If there’s more than one salad, plan on people taking a half-cup (unless it’s really good). About 50 percent of the salad should be pasta, the rest vegetables and other ingredients. Aim for slicing and dicing ingredients all about the same size for the most pleasing texture and aesthetic.

AP photo

I’m certainly prone to adding whatever odds and ends I’ve got in the fridge. But there are a few products I like to stock that bring pasta salads together effortlessly. These are oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes; jarred, roasted red peppers; brined, pitted olives (like Kalamata); sliced or chopped, pickled chilies (like jalapenos); high-quality, canned salmon and tuna, artichoke hearts and canned beans.

Obviously, combining all of these without some fresh ingredients is going to make for a pretty one-note pasta salad. So choose a couple of favorites, pair them with a vegetable or two and enliven everything with freshly grated citrus zest, fresh herbs and best-quality oils and vinegars.

Always, always, always make your own dressing for a pasta salad rather than pouring on something from a bottle. It takes just a couple of minutes and tastes exponentially better. The pasta will absorb dressing between preparation and serving. So make more dressing than you need, bring it along to your event and drizzle some over right before tossing to keep flavors front and center.

Orzo and Broccoli Salad

4 ounces orzo

1 large head broccoli, cut into small florets (about 5 to 6 cups)

1⁄2 cup finely chopped green onions

1⁄2 cup sliced black olives

1 small carrot, peeled and grated

1 cup corn, cut fresh from the cob (optional)

1 teaspoon dried oregano (may substitute 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh oregano)

1 garlic clove, pressed or crushed and finely minced

1⁄4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1⁄3 cup olive oil

1⁄4 cup red-wine vinegar

Salt, to taste

Cook the orzo in boiling, salted water according to package directions. During last 3 minutes of cooking, add the broccoli. Drain in a colander and rinse lightly with cold water.

In a large bowl, mix orzo and broccoli with the green onions, olives, carrot, corn if using, oregano, garlic and pepper.

In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the oil and vinegar, and then toss with salad ingredients. Add the salt to taste. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

— Recipe adapted by the Detroit Free Press from


Orecchiette Salad With Grilled Vegetables

8 ounces orecchiette (about 2 cups)

1 small head radicchio, halved lengthwise and cored

2 small bulbs fennel, cored and cut into 1⁄4-inch wedges, plus 1⁄4 cup chopped fennel fronds

8 assorted baby bell peppers, halved and seeded

1⁄2 cup olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh parsley

1 1⁄2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

3 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (about 2 minutes less than label directs). Drain and set aside.

Preheat a grill to medium-high. Place the radicchio, fennel wedges and bell peppers in a large bowl and drizzle with 1⁄4 cup of the olive oil. Season with the salt and pepper. Grill vegetables, turning occasionally, until charred and crisp-tender, about 4 minutes for peppers and radicchio, 6 minutes for fennel. Remove from grill and let cool, then cut into small pieces. Transfer to a serving bowl.

To serving bowl, add cooked pasta, the cannellini beans, remaining olive oil, the lemon juice and zest, parsley, balsamic vinegar, 1⁄4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine. Add the Parmesan shavings and fennel fronds and toss again gently. Serve immediately or refrigerate, covered, for up to 6 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

— Recipe adapted by the Detroit Free Press from


Ditalini Chopped Salad

16 ounces ditalini pasta

2 cups cubed provolone or shredded Italian cheese blend

4 cups chopped romaine

1 medium red onion, peeled and diced

1 cup chopped red, yellow or orange peppers

1⁄4 cup chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 cup seeded and diced cucumber

1⁄3 pound cubed salami

2 large shallots, peeled

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1⁄4 cup Dijon mustard

1⁄4 cup red-wine vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

3⁄4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water according to package directions. Drain and spread it out on a baking sheet for 30 minutes.

In a large serving bowl, combine pasta with the cheese, romaine, red onion, peppers, parsley, cucumber and salami.

Place the shallots and garlic in a blender jar or bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to chop. Add the mustard, vinegar and sugar. Pulse to combine. With blender or processor running, slowly add the oil in a steady stream to emulsify. Taste and adjust seasonings and ingredients as necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour dressing over salad and toss to combine.

Makes 16 servings.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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