Did you know that Pasta Salads have been around for a century? One of the first recorded recipes is a Macaroni Salad with a dressing of horseradish, cream, and sugar served atop a bed of lettuce. Macaroni Salad is immensely popular in Hawaii, where is part of a "plate lunch," which includes rice, Macaroni Salad, and a protein entree. Plate lunches were traditionally served to workers in the sugar cane fields, and were heavy on the carbs - for energy, I suppose. Those plate lunches remain favorites today among Hawaiians.
These days Pasta Salad is a common item at pot luck dinners and backyard picnics. Pasta Salads can be made with a wide variety of pastas, and usually have a vinaigrette dressing or a creamy mayonnaise dressing. I've sampled a lot of them that were heavy, gummy, and unappetizing. There are a lot of ways a well-intentioned pasta salad can go wrong: overcooking the pasta, over-dressing the salad, using ingredients that aren't fresh and crisp, and over or under seasoning. But, with a little care and imagination, you can whip up a tasty and satisfying dish.
A few tips:
- Season the water you cook the pasta in liberally with salt
- Do not overcook the pasta - it will lose its shape and have a soggy texture
- Combine mayonnaise with plain Greek yogurt for a lighter and livelier dressing
- Mayonnaise dressings benfit from a little added acid - lemon or lime juice, or vinegar
- Use a variety of textures in your salad - balance the pasta with crunchy, chewy, and/or juicy ingredients
- Fresh herbs add color and flavor
- I like using a little grated onion in my pasta salads - to hide it from my kids and to avoid getting a big chunk of raw onion
- Pasta will soak up dressing, so keep a little extra to add in just before serving
- If you are serving a salad with mayonnaise at a picnic or on a buffet, place the serving in a bowl ice to keep it cool.
Refreshing Chicken and Grape Pasta Salad
1 pound bowtie pasta, cooked according to directions on box, drained, and cooled
3 cups shredded cooked chicken (use rotisserie chicken from the deli as a shortcut)
2 or 3 ribs celery, sliced thinly on the bias
2-3 cups green grapes, halved (a combo of green and red grapes is nice, too)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
Juice and zest of 2 limes
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons grated onion
¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Stir together the dressing ingredients until smooth. Reserve 1/4 cup of dressing. Toss remaining dressing with pasta, chicken, celery, and grapes. Chill salad at least one hour before serving. Stir in reserved dressing just before serving. Garnish with additional cilantro and a small cluster of grapes, if desired.