Pasta salad is one of those dishes that are supposed to be infinitely flexible. It’s just cooked pasta, vegetables, and dressing. What could be easier? Well, nothing … which is precisely the problem. Pasta salads can be so easy, they’re uninspiring.
That’s the dilemma I faced when I sat down to come up with the second in my series of recipes for easily made breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner dishes that can be substituted for store-bought items typically loaded with added sugar. I knew I wanted to do a home-made pasta salad, but finding one that was both tempting and convenient seemed difficult.
Fortunately, my perplexity didn’t last long. I quickly figured out that the reason I’m not a fan of pasta salads is that they’re nearly always a disparate collection of tastes and textures that have found themselves serendipitously sharing the same plate. Yes, pasta surrounded by various brightly hued vegetables may look pretty, but when the only reason for their coexistence is that they are all coated with the same bland, oily dressing, then my attention starts to wonder.
So, to keep my attention focused, I decided that my pasta salad needed to have more going for it than being a collection of pretty faces. There needed to be some reason underlying the choice of vegetables, and I wanted those vegetables to have generally the same size and texture as the pasta they were going to accompany. I also wanted the dressing to play a unifying role as well as to add flavor.
The result, if I may say so myself, is pretty spectacular. I chose firm, sturdy vegetables to suggest hardiness in the face of winter’s cold: carrots, cauliflower, red onions, and radicchio. I also softened the carrots and cauliflower by blanching them so that their normal crunchiness wouldn’t overpower the pasta.
Regarding the type of pasta, I chose rotini (also called fusilli), since it has the perfect bite-size shape, making it fun for kids to eat. Rotini’s twisted shape also holds tiny bits of dressing, which provides a further boost of flavor in every bite.
Speaking of the dressing, I think that’s the best part of this recipe. Every recipe I’ve seen for pasta salad uses either a mayonnaise-based dressing or a vinaigrette. I think mayonnaise covers up the flavors of the other ingredients, while a vinaigrette just slides off of them. Mine solves both of those problems. My dressing is a lemon juice-based vinaigrette, but I first blend some feta cheese into the lemon juice before adding the extra virgin olive oil. This gives the dressing some heft so it can function as the salad’s unifying force. At the same time the wonderful brininess of feta provides yet another dimension of flavor.
The end result is an easy-to-make salad that is bursting with delicious and healthy ingredients, has no added sugar, and is guaranteed to be loved by kids and adults alike. It’s pasta salad redux, the inspirational version.
Winter Pasta Salad
1 pound of rotini pasta**
1 pound of carrots, peeled, trimmed, and sliced into thin coins
1 pound (about ½ a large head) of cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
4 ounces of radicchio, shredded***
Juice of two medium lemons (about 6 tablespoons)
4 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled
½ teaspoon ABMK’s herb salt (or plain sea salt)
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Fill a large pot with 4 to 5 quarts of water and a tablespoon of salt. Cover with a lid and start to bring to a boil. Meanwhile, place the sliced red onion in a large mixing bowl.
2. Blanch the cauliflower and carrots: After the water has come to a boil, place the cauliflower florets in the boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove the florets from the boiling water using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer. Immediately submerge the florets in cold water or rinse them in a colander under cold running water in order to stop the cooking process. Repeat this process for the carrots. Place both the blanched cauliflower and carrots in the mixing bowl with the onion.
3. Bring the water in the pot back to a rapid boil. Add the pasta to the water and then cook it until it is al dente (cooked through but still firm to the bite). I find that the package directions provide only a rough guideline. You should always test for doneness by fishing out a few pieces of pasta and tasting them beginning a few minutes before the end of the time indicated on the package. Also, be sure to stir the pasta several times during the first two to three minutes of cooking to keep pieces from sticking to each other.
4. While the pasta is cooking, make the vinaigrette: In the bowl of a mini food processor, place the lemon juice, herb salt, and pepper. Add the crumbled feta cheese, and then process the mixture until it is smooth. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the bowl and process again, scraping down the sides as necessary, until you have a smooth, creamy dressing. (If you don’t have a mini food processor, follow the instructions using a bowl and a whisk.) Scrape the dressing into the bowl with the vegetables.
5. After the pasta has finished cooking, turn off the heat. Quickly drain the pasta in a colander in the sink, and then rinse it briefly under cold running water to reduce its temperature. Shake it a few times to eliminate excess water. Place the pasta in the bowl with the other ingredients and stir to combine, making sure that the dressing coats all of the ingredients. Mix in the radicchio and serve.
*Note that these ingredients can easily be scaled up or down to make as much or as little of the salad as you like.
**Tri-color rotini is fun for kids. You can also use whole wheat or gluten free pasta.
*** You can substitute arugula or baby spinach for the radicchio.
Make Ahead: This salad is great for weekday lunches since it can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator. If you are making it ahead, omit the radicchio (or arugula or spinach, whichever you are using). To serve, let the salad come to room temperature and then gently fold in the radicchio (or arugula or spinach).
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