Picnic-Perfect Pasta Salad

July 10, 2014 Soups, Salads, Salsas

When it comes to comfort food, few ingredients are as uniquely satisfying as pasta. Whether layered, rolled, stuffed, in sauces, soups and casseroles, a twirled forkful of pasta is hearty and delicious to everyone, and almost always evokes special dinner-table memories.

No picnic or potluck is complete without pasta in the mix.

During cool months of the year, pasta is rich and warm. In the sun-soaked summertime, however, pasta comes alive! As a side dish or a center-of-the-plate star, it shines with ease and versatility. No picnic or potluck is complete without pasta in the mix. Here are some tips to keep in mind when building your perfect pasta salad.

The Grain. From size to shape, the grain options are seemingly endless. For creamy or saucy salads, choose tubular shapes like rigatoni or penne, or spiral cuts like rotini or fusilli, since all the nooks and crannies hold onto dressing best. Tinker with the texture differences between white and whole-wheat pastas, and also consider experimenting with stuffed versions like tortellini and ravioli. Take advantage of the simplicity of tiny grains as well. Pearl couscous, for example, soaks up dressing beautifully.

The Dressing. Since pasta salad recipes don't involve simmering and development of flavor for hours in a sauté pan, it's important to incorporate definitive flavor in other ways. Use aromatics like fresh garlic, green onions or shallots. Pack punch with heat from crushed red pepper flakes or a little hot sauce. Add acidity with freshly squeezed lemon or lime. Be creative, too, in bringing saltiness by incorporating ingredients like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce or cheeses.

Let the party location help you decide which dressing to use. for example: add fusilli and a creamy dressing to this Picnic Kidney Bean Salad, and serve it during gatherings with access to refrigeration. Opt for oil-based toppings in other situations. Cruise the aisles of your grocery store to find interesting flavor combinations that inspire new twists. Be open to marinades, as well as traditional salad dressings, as they offer more variety and concentrated flavor. One of my all-time favorites is a simple mix of five ingredients — orzo pasta, fresh parsley, green peas, juicy blueberries and lemon-pepper marinade.

The Additions. The veggies, cheeses and secret ingredients you toss into a pasta salad to make it extra special should be used to fill in any "holes." For example, if you're missing crunchiness, consider adding crushed pecans or toasted pine nuts. Need more salt? Add sliced olives, brined capers or diced chunks of cured meat. If you're seeking sweetness, add balance with dried fruits like raisins or chopped apricots. And if color is needed, complete the salad with a kaleidoscope of bell peppers like you'll find in this Rockin' Rainbow Salad.

Pasta salads are a summertime staple. When pulling your next one together, have fun with the many wonderful possibilities knowing that it's hard to go wrong. So, from fruits and beans to herbs and nuts, stir in as many good-for-you ingredients as you desire while keeping the versatility of pasta salad recipes in mind. Hot, cold, creamy, crunchy, cheese-topped or bean-packed, you can count on any pasta salad to be as crowd-pleasing as a run through the sprinkler at the end of a picnic.