Why am I continually underwhelmed with pasta salad? I mean here are two things I adore: pasta and salad. Together. In theory this should be a match made in heaven yet in reality, it rarely makes “runner up” status. Meh.
Oh it’s popular for sure and with good reason. It can be prepared in advance, travels well and few people dislike it. But it’s never the leading lady is it? Instead it’s stuck in the chorus line along with the cole slaws, potato salads and fruit salads. Even grocery stores and deli’s can’t seem to get pasta salad right. They think they can just pour bottled dressing over cooked pasta and call it a day. I knew in my heart I could improve upon the mundane.
I was determined to come up with a fresh and flavorful pasta salad for my son’s birthday dinner (which also included brats, fresh watermelon and Rice Krispy Treats for dessert). My guy loves bacon, fresh tomatoes and cheese, so I incorporated all three into the salad. Fresh basil from the garden seemed like a natural addition and added a burst of fresh flavor and color. The result was a beautiful salad that had excellent textures and a wonderfully fresh and balanced flavor. No chorus line for this gal!
One quick note before the recipe: I can’t stress enough the importance of using a freshly made vinaigrette dressing. For my salad, I used Penzey’s Italian Vinegar & Oil Seasoning, along with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Local followers of my blog can find a fabulous Italian Dressing Base at the Savory Spice Store in Hinsdale. Good Seasons® Salad Dressing Mix is a decent alternative as long as you stick with good oil and vinegar. If I can’t sell you on the notion of making a dressing from scratch, go with a high quality bottled dressing, like Trader Joe’s Organic Red Wine Vinegar & Olive Oil Vinaigrette. It’s free of all the things that typically make bottled dressings unsuitable (high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, etc.)
Finally, a pasta salad that can take center stage!
Garden Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Pancetta and Fresh Basil
1 # dry pasta, regular or whole grain (fusilli, orchiette, elbow, farfalle, etc.)
6 oz. pancetta or bacon, chopped
8 oz. light havarti or other mild soft cheese, cubed (see Note 1>)
2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered lengthwise (about 2 pints)
3-4 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 cup lightly packed torn fresh basil leaves
1 cup freshly prepared Italian Vinaigrette Dressing (see Note 2>)
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Cook pancetta in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Cook pasta according to package directions until just al dente (do not overcook). Drain and rinse under cool water. Drain thoroughly and add to a large serving bowl.
Gently stir in remaining ingredients. Pour about ½ of the dressing in and taste, continuing to add more if necessary. Reserve any leftover dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cover and refrigerate for up to 6 hours, letting the salad sit at room temperature about ½ an hour before serving. If necessary, add a little more dressing and toss gently.
Serves 8-10 people as a side dish
Note 1> To facilitate cutting cheese into cubes, place in the freezer about 15-20 minutes prior to cutting. Other cheeses that may be substituted: mozzarella, feta, queso blanco, or smoked mozzarella.
Note 2> Remember, freshly made dressing is always preferable to bottled. Salad dressing bases are available online at the Savory Spice Shop and also Penzey’s Spice Shop. Follow the directions on the jars and remember your dressing is only as good as the quality of the ingredients! Good Seasons® Salad Dressing mix is a decent alternative. For store bought dressing, I prefer Trader Joe’s Organic Red Wine Vinegar and Olive Oil Vinaigrette.