You know what nobody cares for at a party? A bowl of limp, mayo-slicked noodles masquerading as pasta salad. So give them what they really want instead: a colorful side dish bursting with height-of-the-season produce dressed in a bright vinaigrette that makes coming back for seconds a must. Here are our tips for how to master the perfect pasta salad, plus five summer-ready recipes to get you started.
Dress to the nines. Once you master a simple vinaigrette, you’ll never have to reach for the mayo jar again. For our basic formula, which you can scale up as desired, use ¼ cup of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, ¾ cup of olive oil and salt to taste. No fancy method required—just shake it up in a jar—since imperfections are masked by the pasta, and any leftover dressing can be used later. You can also add pickle juice for zing or crushed garlic for even more flavor.
Be a shape-shifter. Take a penne; leave a penne. We strongly encourage you to branch out when it comes to pasta shapes, and we suggest ones with nooks that are made for clutching onto sauce, like rotini and fusilli. Or skip the pasta and use a different grain altogether. The popular farro salad at Charlie Bird in New York, with its fresh herbs, roasted pistachios and generous shaving of Parmesan, is a pasta salad by any other name.
Use your noodle. Be smart when you’re cooking the base—after all, it’s pasta salad. Salt the water even more than you usually would and don’t overcook it. The final product should have some give without turning to baby food. As the pasta cools, toss it with a spoonful of olive oil to prevent stickage.
Embrace the pastabilities. There’s no sauce for the pasta to hide behind, so it’s all about the add-ins. Make sure you have something crunchy to offset slippery noodles and enough salt to liven it all up. Dress it just before serving, so everything stays fresh. For our recipes, we choose a height-of-the-season ingredient as our veg component, and then pair it with the freshest and brightest herbs, crunchy nuts and—most importantly—carbs.
Get ready to bowl everyone over with these five summer-ready sides.
—Make It with Corn—
Imagine a burrito bowl in which you swap ordinary rice for spring-loaded rotini. The focus is on the corn, but it’s the creamy avocado and squeeze of lime juice that add the “can’t stop eating this” factor here.
½ lb rotini, cooked and cooled + 2 c corn kernels + 1 avocado, diced + ½ c pepitas + ½ c cilantro + juice of 2 limes + vinaigrette, to taste + salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, fold together the pasta, corn, avocado, pepitas and cilantro. Add the lime juice and vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.
—Make It with Tomatoes—
Orzo practically begs to be match-made with Mediterranean ingredients like briny olives and summer’s ripe, juicy tomatoes. You’ll find a similar salad at Barcha in San Francisco, where sun-dried tomatoes take the place of fresh ones.
½ lb orzo, cooked and cooled + 1½ c cherry tomatoes, quartered + ½ c kalamata olives, chopped + 1½ c chopped cucumber + ½ c feta + ½ c chopped fresh oregano + vinaigrette, to taste + salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, fold together the pasta, tomatoes, olives and cucumbers. Gently mix in the feta and oregano. Add the vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.
—Make It with Zucchini—
Angel-hair pasta was spiralizing before it was cool, but we’re all for compromise. We mix tangles of zucchini with the carby stuff, taking a note from Cafe Clover in New York, where summer squash and chickpea spaghetti coexist in one harmonious dish.
½ lb angel hair, cooked and cooled + 1 zucchini, spiralized + 1 thinly sliced green bell pepper + ½ c parsley + ½ c grated Parmesan + vinaigrette, to taste + salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, fold together the pasta, zucchini and bell pepper. Gently mix in the parsley and Parmesan, then add the vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.
—Make It with Green Beans—
Adding peanut butter to the vinaigrette takes this cold noodle salad from take-out favorite to party all-star. Blanch your green beans and carrots first so that they have just enough bite but aren’t chewy.
½ lb soba noodles, cooked and cooled, + 2 c green beans + ½ c thinly sliced scallions + ½ c thinly sliced carrots + ½ c peanuts, toasted and chopped + 1 tbsp sesame oil + 1 tbsp peanut butter + ¾ c vinaigrette + salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, fold together the pasta, green beans, scallions, carrots, peanuts and sesame oil. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the peanut butter and vinaigrette until smooth. Add the dressing to the pasta, and season with salt and pepper.
—Make It with Figs—
Fresh fig season is a thing of fleeting beauty. Get those sweet, plump orbs while they’re hot and pair them with savory cured meat and creamy cheese. Use bow-tie pasta here—figs being fancy and all.
½ lb bow-tie pasta, cooked and cooled + 1 c fresh figs + ½ c prosciutto + 1 c arugula + ½ c goat cheese + vinaigrette, to taste + salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, fold together the pasta, figs, prosciutto and arugula. Gently mix in the goat cheese, then add the vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.