Monday, October 17, 2016

Pasta Salad

I was looking for a side dish that would also serve as a light lunch.  I wanted it cold, mainly because it's hot outside.  I also didn't want anything mayonnaise-based much for the same reasons.  I settled on making a pasta salad.  Nothing earth-shattering, it was just something light and tasty.  I did have a few other requirements.  For example a light dressing, not only not mayo-based but something you don't need a lot of it.  I wanted it to compliment the flavors of the other ingredients, not overrule them.  What I discovered was that you can put pretty much any veggie you like and a wide selection of cold-cuts.  It's more versatile than I thought and it's a great way to deal with a few veggie-draw leftovers.  For example those basil leaves left over from a Caprese salad, or that half a cucumber or onion.  Here's what I did:

I boiled up a pot of the three-color rotini pasta, 12 oz box.  It's not that the green and red one are flavored all that different from the white ones, but the color contrast works nicely.  Cook this slightly past aldente -- and I mean slightly.  If you overcook these, they tend to fall apart.  The reason I go slight past aldente is that since this is a cold dish, aldente pasta tends to become a little harder once cooled down.  My preference more than anything else.  Once cooked and drained, set aside to cool.

While it was cooling, I broke out the chef's knife and started cutting and chopping.  Here's what I had on hand for my first attempt at this sort of salad:

  • 1 whole cucumber, peeled (it was an older one and the peel tends to get bitter), small dice
  • 1 medium red onion, small dice
  • 1 large sweet red bell pepper, small dice
  • 1 medium ham steak, also small dice
  • 1 head of broccoli, chopped
  • 2 carrots cut and sliced into thin matchsticks about an inch or so long
  • 1 ball of mozzarella (1/4 inch cube dice).  I prefer fresh over the part-skim drier form.
  • 4 green onions, sliced on a bias, about 1/4 inch long
  • 4 basil leaves, chiffon-ed. That is rolled up together lengthwise, then thinly sliced with a sharp knife across the width.  You end up ribbons of basil.

Lastly the dressing, you put 3 Tbs of red wine vinegar in a bowl, add about 2 tsp of Dijon mustard and one finely chopped (or minced) garlic clove.  Then whisk as you slowly drizzle in 6 Tbs of good olive oil (extra-virgin is best).  The ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 seems to work well.  If you drop it to 2:1 it tastes more of the vinegar, and anything over 4:1 comes across a little oily texture.  For this type of dressing, I stay away from the county-style Dijon's, they are a bit lumpy and the flavor doesn't seem to distribute that well.

Once you are done adding the oil, whisk for another minute or two, check the seasoning for taste and add salt and pepper.  It's a nice light dressing and you won't need a lot of it.  In fact it all depends on the volume of the other ingredients.  I usually dress with half and see how things look and taste before I add any more.

And that it.  Just put everything in a large bowl and dress to your taste.  Like I said, this was what I had on hand.  The ingredients for this sort of summer salad are pretty versatile.  If my veggie drawer had a different selection, I would have used that.

An added note, I did this salad a second time and added some diced fresh button mushrooms.  The flavor was good, but they were a little woody.  So the next time, I made up the dressing early and twice the usual amount.  Then I marinated the mushrooms for a couple of hours before doing the rest.  That softened them up and they became more part of the whole instead of a slightly discordant note.

Hard-boiled eggs, leftover chicken or turkey, shredded lettuce, celery, and even a little canned tuna might work well in various combinations.  I am also tempted to spice things up a bit with some jalapeno, cilantro, and even red pepper flake, but that will have to wait until I am flying solo.  Not everyone appreciates such spices.

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