By Janet K. Keeler • Times Food and Travel Editor
Pasta salad gets a bad rap. And deservedly so.
The big bowl of cold noodles is often bland and uninspired, underdressed and lacking punch. There has been many a party at which the pasta salad remains largely untouched.
It's time to change that sad state of affairs for your Labor Day gathering.
For years, I dressed my pasta salad too early and when it was still a bit warm, which contributed to the dryness. Warm pasta soaks up more liquid than cold, so the pasta should be completely cooled and slightly dried. Don't rinse it, just drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool. Let it sit for about 15 minutes. It might stick a bit, but the dressing will help break it up.
For 1 pound of pasta, you'll need a cup of dressing. It's best to dress the salad no more than 1 hour before serving to get the full impact and to prevent the dressing from getting soaked up by the pasta, even if it's cold. For most pasta salads, you can mix in the vegetables and other ingredients in advance to get ahead and then mix in dressing at the last minute.
You can mix and match lots of ingredients but keep in mind you'll need some strong flavors to bring the pasta to life. The noodles provide texture and weight, plus they are carriers for the dressing and other ingredients, but they don't add a ton of flavor. That's why tuna, ham and shrimp and cheeses like feta and goat are such good additions. Nuts, too.
Onions — sweet, green or shallots — plus fresh herbs also bring flavor to the dance, as do marinated vegetables, artichoke hearts especially.
Have some fun with the pasta, too. Besides the usual elbow, shells, corkscrew and bowtie, consider different shapes such as orecchiette, long noodles and orzo. (Couscous, which makes a lovely salad, is not technically a pasta because it's made of crushed durum wheat rather than ground.) Experiment with whole wheat pasta, which will be nuttier and a bit more toothsome. There are gluten-free versions of pasta, too.
Now, back to the dressing. Mayonnaise is technically a dressing, so traditional macaroni salad qualifies as a pasta salad. Mayonnaise can be doctored with other flavorings, such as lemon or lime juice, dried herbs and even hot sauces, to change its personality.
I tend to avoid balsamic dressing for traditional pasta salad because I don't like the brown tinge it gives to the pasta. For me, that's a visual turnoff, but that's a personal preference. Dressings awash in vinegar can turn brightly colored vegetables grayish.
A stroll down the condiments aisle will turn up all sorts of bottled dressings, including Asian-inspired varieties.
When you cook your pasta, sprinkle the water liberally with salt. And, of course, add salt to these salads to taste.
The following 25 simple pasta salad ideas will expand your horizons, and could make you the hit of the Labor Day cookout.
Contact Janet K. Keeler at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @roadeats.
1 From the garden
Tricolor spiral pasta with thinly sliced carrots, halved grape tomatoes, diced red onion, cucumber and green pepper. Top with grated Parmesan.
.Dressing: Italian vinaigrette.
Orzo with pitted or sliced kalamata olives, sliced cucumber, diced tomatoes, feta cheese crumbles and chopped fresh mint. Shrimp is optional, and corkscrew pasta is a good alternative.
Penne with fresh mozzarella balls, ribbons of chopped fresh basil and halved cherry tomatoes.
.Dressing: Light vinaigrette. (For more flavor, marinate the cherry tomatoes in the dressing before adding to pasta mixture.)
4 California vegan
Bowties with chopped marinated artichoke hearts, 1-inch lengths of lightly cooked asparagus (toss into pot of cooking pasta for the last 3 minutes) and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley.
.Dressing: Augment brine from artichokes with red wine vinaigrette.
Soba (buckwheat) noodles dressed with peanut sauce and topped with shredded bok choy and carrots that have been tossed with soy sauce and rice vinegar beforehand, and chopped peanuts.
.Dressing: A drizzle of toasted sesame oil.
6 Lunch lady special
Elbows with flaked canned tuna and thawed frozen peas.
.Dressing: Mayonnaise mixed with fresh lemon juice. Capers would add a boost.
7 Creamy veg
Ditalini (minitubes) with finely chopped onion, ½-inch lengths of cooked green beans, corn kernels, 1 chopped fennel bulb, 1 diced red bell pepper, a couple of tablespoons each of chopped fennel frond and parsley.
.Dressing: Light ranch.
8 Taco time
Elbows with kernels from 2 ears of grilled corn, 1 can drained and rinsed black beans, chopped black olives, sliced green onion, chopped tomatoes, diced red onion and shredded cheddar cheese.
.Dressing: ½ cup each salsa and sour cream mixed with 2 tablespoons mayonnaise and ½ teaspoon cumin.
9 Seafood mix
Penne with bay scallops, crab and salad shrimp plus diced, seeded cucumber, sliced celery, fresh chopped dill and blanched broccoli florets.
.Dressing: Lime vinaigrette. (Newman's Own is one variety.)
10 Something fishy
Spaghetti (broken in half before cooking) with flaked, cooked salmon, seeded and diced cucumber, sliced water chestnuts and chopped cilantro.
.Dressing: Shiitake & Sesame (Annie's Naturals).
Elbows with cubes of salami and hot pepper cheese (you could also use a couple of jars of marinated cheese cubes) plus sliced scallions and ½-inch lengths of lightly cooked asparagus.
.Dressing: Red wine vinaigrette.
12 Classic macaroni
Elbows with sliced celery, chopped green bell peppers, red onion and halved grape tomatoes.
.Dressing: Mayonnaise mixed with a bit of celery salt.
Rotini pasta with pesto, peas and Parmesan cheese. Garnish with pine nuts.
.Dressing: The pesto is your dressing, thinned with olive oil if needed.
14 Early Thanksgiving
Shells with cubed turkey breast, dried cranberries, sliced celery and herbed croutons (the kind used for stuffing).
.Dressing: Raspberry vinaigrette.
15 Chicken Caesar
Corkscrew pasta with shredded rotisserie chicken, big shaves of Parmesan cheese and garlic croutons.
16 Asian rolls
Rice noodles with thinly sliced cucumber and carrots, chopped baked egg rolls and chopped cilantro.
.Dressing: Sesame soy.
17 Minty Melon
Rigatoni with chunks of watermelon, slices of watermelon pickle, feta and chopped mint.
.Dressing: Olive oil and lime juice vinaigrette.
Penne with cubes of salami, ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese, mixed with chopped dill pickles.
.Dressing: Mayonnaise mixed with mustard.
19 Summer taste
Orecchiette (those cute little ears) with thin strips of prosciutto, diced cantaloupe, big shaves of Parmesan cheese and whole basil leaves. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
.Dressing: Red wine vinaigrette.
20 The three P's
Rotini pasta with crispy pancetta and peas plus grated Parmesan.
.Dressing: Creamy peppercorn.
Shells with pulled pork and shredded multicolored cabbage and diced red onion.
.Dressing: Barbecue sauce mixed with mayonnaise.
Bowties with chopped bacon, tomatoes, avocado and shredded iceberg lettuce.
.Dressing: Vinaigrette with mayonnaise and chopped basil.
Soba (buckwheat) noodles with chopped kimchi, broccoli, radishes and zucchini and shredded chicken.
.Dressing: Asian vinaigrette splashed with a little of the pickled kimchi juice and gochujang (hot Korean paste) or Sriracha sauce.
Bowties with oil-packed, drained tuna plus black olives, steamed sliced green beans, halved cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumber, sliced radishes, sliced hardboiled eggs and chopped anchovies (optional).
.Dressing: Mustard vinaigrette.
25 Smoked Salmon
Large elbows with chopped smoked salmon, fresh dill, scallions, capers and lemon zest.
.Dressing: Sour cream mixed with lemon juice.