It's a curse of summer, a blight on the picnic table: all those bowls of soggy, tasteless pasta salads.
Pasta salads can, in fact, serve as a tasty, affordable way to feed a crowd. The problem is that so many of them are boring. Many have an unpleasant, cloying tang that leaves you scraping the top of your tongue with your teeth.
Overcome the curse with a few handy tips.
Don't overcook the pasta. Aim for "al dente" (literally "to the teeth"), cooked through but still firm when you bite into it.
Drain the pasta well. This is especially important with shapes (like tubes and shells) that can trap water. Cooking water in your salad will dilute flavors.
Go for crunch and color: bell peppers, carrots, zucchini and scallions.
Fresh ingredients really matter. Fresh herbs, freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly ground pepper these make a difference you can taste.
Homemade dressing trumps bottled every time. If you think you don't have time, go for a simple 2/3 cup oil to 1/3 cup vinegar, salt and pepper, and maybe a bit of mustard and a pinch of sugar.
CONFETTI PASTA SALAD WITH TANGY YOGURT DRESSING
For the salad:
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 8 ounces fusilli or rotini pasta
- 3 stalks celery, diced
- 6 scallions, minced
- 3/4 cup diced sweet onion
- 3/4 cup sliced Kalamata olives
- 1/2 cup diced sweet pickle
For the dressing:
• 1/2 cup plain, full-fat yogurt, preferably Greek
• 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
• 3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
• 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons sweet pickle juice
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
This pasta is best made one day in advance. It can be kept, covered, and refrigerated for up to two days.
Preheat the broiler. Arrange the bell peppers on a rimmed baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally to roast evenly, 10 to 12 minutes, until the skin is blackened. Place the peppers in a plastic or paper bag, seal securely, and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel away and discard the skin. Remove the cores and seeds, and dice.
Cook the pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain well, and place in a large bowl. Allow to cool slightly. Add the diced peppers and the remaining salad ingredients, and stir to mix.
Make the dressing: Whisk together the yogurt, mayonnaise and mustard until well blended. Whisk in the remaining dressing ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour the dressing over the pasta, and mix. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to two days. Taste and adjust seasoning. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8 servings
COUSCOUS WITH VEGETABLES AND HERBS
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 red bell pepper, or 1/2 red and 1/2 yellow bell pepper, finely diced
- 1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion
- 1 medium zucchini, coarsely grated
- 1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas (see Cook's note)
- 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon fresh savory or thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
- 3/4 cup couscous (small North African couscous, not larger Israeli couscous)
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook's note: If using fresh peas, first plunge into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking.
Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bell pepper and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until tender and aromatic. Add the zucchini, and cook for 5 minutes longer, stirring to blend. Stir in the peas, parsley, lemon juice and savory (or thyme). Set aside.
Bring the stock (or broth) just to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the couscous, cover, and let sit off the heat for 5 minutes.
Fluff the couscous with a fork, and add to the vegetables, stirring to mix evenly. Stir in the basil and lemon zest, with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
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