Pasta salads get a bad rap but I find that the more I think of them as room temperature summer dishes and the less as mayo-slicked bowls of suspicion and dread, the more inviting they become, not only for cookouts and picnics, but (ahem) a gorgeous Tuesday night.
Two things help a lot, first, I like starting with a salad dressing we’ve loved and building it from there. We talked about this walnut pesto [pesto di noci] for the first time way back in 2009; it’s from Jody Williams and it’s a longtime staple on crostini at the shoebox wine bar Gottino in the West Village. Don’t be put off by its unassuming appearance — this combination of toasted walnuts, olive oil, thyme, parmesan and a dab of minced sundried tomatoes is a triumph of flavor, I’m not surprised Frank Bruni once called it one of the best crostini in town and likened it to “crunchy peanut butter for grown-ups.” [But oh, I think it’s even better.]
Next, a grilled or roasted vegetable really helps make a pasta salad into a great lunch or dinner dish, and doesn’t have the aggressive crunch of raw ones. The summer months are teeming with great produce, we should take advantage. I also find that the more exceptional the vegetable, the more you can dial back the proportion pasta, should you and carbs be wary of each other right now. It’s a little early for eggplant (I was impatient) but you could just as easily use grilled or roasted zucchini/summer squash, red pepper or even the last of the skinny asparagus.
Finally, this might just be me, but my favorite thing is going to a store with a great selection of pasta shapes and picking something funky. The best kind here will be short and easily stabbed with a fork, and have pockets where the nubby bits of walnut nirvana can hide out. (I used Setaro’s organietti but other brands call it radiatore). And then, take it outside somewhere. Pasta salad is for plates on your lap, picnic benches and plastic cups with condensation down the outside.
Now that you’ve let me sound off, I am genuinely curious: What’s the worst pasta salad you’ve ever had and what’s the best?
One year ago: Saltine Crack Ice Cream Sandwiches
Two years ago: Coconut Brown Butter Cookies
Three years ago: Rhubarb Cream Cheese Hand Pies
Four years ago: Strawberries and Cream Biscuits
Five years ago: Roasted Peppers with Capers and Mozzarella
Six years ago: Root Beer Float Cupcakes and Lamb Chops with Pistachio Tapenade
Seven years ago: Grilled Shrimp Cocktail, Graham Crackers and Pesto Potato Salad with Green Beans
Eight years ago: S’More Pie and Jim Lahey’s Potato Pizza
Nine years ago: Black Bottomed Cupcakes and Spring Vegetable Stew
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Pull-Apart Rugelach
1.5 Years Ago: Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix
2.5 Years Ago: Cigarettes Russes Cookies
3.5 Years Ago: Cauliflower Feta Fritters with Pomegranate
4.5 Years Ago: Caesar Salad Deviled Eggs
Pasta Salads, previously:
Charred Eggplant and Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad
Walnut pesto adapted from Jody Williams
Serves: 3 to 4 as a light meal; I’d double it for a party
1/2 pound pasta (I used Setaro’s organietti, but other radiatore shapes are great here)
Additional olive oil
1 medium eggplant (1 pound)
Freshly ground black pepper
Additional sherry or red wine vinegar
2 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil
3/4 cup (2 3/4 ounds ounces) walnuts, toasted and cooled first for best flavor
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 small garlic clove, peeled
2 sprigs of thyme, cleaned
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, plus more at end
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more at end
2 tablespoons (about 3) minced sun-dried tomatoes (oil or dry-packed will both work)
Freshly ground black pepper and/or red pepper flakes
Cook pasta: In very well salted water until 1 to 2 minutes before doneness and drain.
Prepare eggplant: Trim eggplant and slice into 1/2-inch coins. Brush both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat grill to medium-high. Arrange eggplant in one layer and cook until charred underneath, about 8 minutes. (If it’s sticking to the grill, it wants to cook longer.) Flip pieces over and cook until charred on second side, about 5 to 8 minutes more. Set aside to cool slightly then chop into chunks.
No grill? Heat oven to 425. Trim eggplant and slice into 1/2-inch coins. Coat a baking sheet generously with olive oil, arrange eggplant on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast, without disturbing, for 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully flip each piece: the undersides should be blistery, dark and a bit puffy and should release easily; if they don’t want to, cook them a few minutes longer. Flip each piece, sprinkle again with salt and pepper, and roast on the second side for 10 to 12 minutes, or until charred underneath again.
Make dressing: In food processor, coarsely grind walnuts, cheese, garlic, thyme, salt and freshly ground black pepper and/or red pepper flakes. Stir in oil and tomatoes, then whisk in vinegar to taste.
Assemble salad: Toss cooked pasta with walnut dressing and additional vinegar and oil to loosen (I used about 1 tablespoon extra oil and 2 tablespoons extra vinegar in total). Add eggplant and toss again. Adjust seasonings to taste, then stir in cheese and herbs.