When was the last time a pasta salad made you swoon?
Mediocre ones abound. You can find them — floppy farfalle studded with red pepper and corn — at barbecues and potlucks, all summer long.
But a gorgeous mix of well-seasoned vegetables and al dente pasta that’s glistening with good olive oil, citrus and herbs? That’s rarer than a perfectly grilled steak (which you might even ignore should a truly excellent pasta salad appear on your plate).
Before pasta salads hit the supermarket salad bar circuit, they were glamorous things.
According to the food historian Betty Fussell, the pasta salad craze began right here in The New York Times in 1978. That was when Craig Claiborne, the food editor, featured a recipe for Cold Pasta New Orleans Style that adorned cooked pasta with garlic vinaigrette, chopped chicken, beets, black olives and artichoke hearts. His recipe was a marked upgrade from the coleslaw-like, mayonnaise-based macaroni salads that were the previous cold pasta standard.
For the summer tomato pasta salad, tomatoes are marinated with capers, garlic, basil and olive oil until they almost fall apart.CreditJohnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Rebecca Jurkevich
An avalanche of fancy pasta salads followed in the 1980s and ’90s. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck enthused about their versatility.
Even Alice Waters is a fan. In her book, “Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone” (Random House, 1984), she offers three pasta salad variations — with fried bread crumbs, with fresh tomatoes and herbs, and with eggplant, garlic and peppers — all of which sound far more appealing than the pesto-drenched fusilli of today.
But, recent sad salads aside, there’s absolutely no reason pasta salad can’t reclaim its short-lived glory. When thoughtfully made with really good ingredients, pasta salad can (and should) be divine — the fresh and sprightly sleeper hit of your next summer soirée.
These recipes are a good place to start. There’s a tortellini salad, with a creamy green goddess dressing that’s heady with herbs and scallions; a zippy jumble of chewy farro and orzo, tossed with dried apricots, goat cheese and mint; a juicy summer tomato pasta salad scented with garlic and basil; and finally, a template for classic balsamic-dressed pasta salad, with mozzarella and cucumbers, that you can make your very own.
Before you start cooking, however, there are a few rules that must be addressed.
The first is the most vital: Don’t overcook your pasta. If you drain it while still al dente (it should have a spine to it when you bite down), it won’t turn to mush as it sits in the dressing. Next, add your hot, just-drained pasta to the dressing without rinsing. The oil in the dressing will keep the noodles from sticking together. Finally, let the pasta cool in the dressing so it can absorb the most flavor, but don’t add any crunchy vegetables until just before serving, so they stay crisp and fresh.
Because pasta salad is a make-ahead dish only to a point, some last-minute tinkering — a ruffle of fresh herbs, a drizzle of great olive oil and a dusting of flaky sea salt — is what lifts your pasta salad from the quotidian to the sublime. Which is exactly where good pasta salads deserve to be.