Light and lively pasta salads

Coming up with your own unique pasta salads is simply a matter of using a liberal amount of vegetables in proportion to pasta.

pasta 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pasta 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pasta is a favorite food of mine, but I don't always find pasta salads appealing. I've come across too many heavy, mayonnaise-sodden examples. In fact, light pasta sounds almost like an oxymoron. Yet my niece, Jerusalemite Liora Kahn Taylor, came up with a great solution. Her salad, which she made for a barbecue party she gave recently, started out as a salad of romaine strips dressed with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. She embellished the lettuce with halved grape tomatoes (oval cherry tomatoes), sliced fresh mushrooms, sweet red pepper strips and green onion. Liora wanted to make the salad more substantial but not by adding croutons, as they get soggy while the salad sits on a buffet table. Instead she added pasta spirals - just enough so the salad was more satisfying than basic green salad but still was light in texture. You could define it as a cross between a green salad and a pasta salad. It was perfect for a light summertime supper - colorful, fresh looking and tasty even after a couple of hours on the table, and a nice complement to the barbecue menu of grilled chicken, hamburgers and veggie burgers. You can use such a salad as a template to create easy entree salads as well. When Liora mentioned that she feels feta or blue cheese are good additions, it reminded me of a Mediterranean pasta salad I like, for which I pair pasta with spinach and stir in tomatoes, feta cheese and olives. Until recently I made the salad by adding the spinach to the pot of pasta at the last minute to wilt it slightly. When I tried it again leaving greens raw, they gave the salad a welcome, refreshing quality. When I have smoked fish, I use it to enhance a pasta and fresh vegetable salad with a chive-caper vinaigrette and an embellishment of avocado. Generally I serve the salad on a bed of baby greens but for the hot season it is great with the greens mixed in. Instead of fish you could opt for smoked turkey or any meat cold cuts you like, or even strips of roast chicken left from Shabbat. (Marinate the chicken first in a little of the vinaigrette so it won't be dry.) If you prefer a parve salad, drained cooked chickpeas make a tasty alternative. Instead of or in addition to the greens, you can toss the pasta with a mixture of raw and cooked or even canned vegetables. For their Greek pasta salad, the cooks of the vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant, authors of Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, mix pasta shells with canned artichoke hearts, sliced celery and diced cucumbers and tomatoes, and for extra richness, finish this whole-meal salad with feta cheese, olives and eggplant cubes sautéed in olive oil with garlic. California chef John Ash, author of From the Earth to the Table, makes fusilli salad with asparagus and smoked mozzarella. After briefly cooking the asparagus (or green beans, according to the season), he cooks the pasta in the asparagus's cooking broth, then tosses both with diced roasted red and yellow peppers, slivered tomatoes, chopped basil and mint, and rice vinegar olive oil dressing flavored with mustard. Thin slices of smoked mozzarella and a garnish of basil sprigs complete the elegant medley. Coming up with your own light and lively pasta salads is simply a matter of using a liberal amount of vegetables in proportion to pasta. Choose a light dressing and add just enough to coat the ingredients without making them limp so they keep their pleasing texture. Remember that pasta needs quite a bit of seasoning so it won't be bland; taste the salad just before you serve it. Refrigerating the salad ahead can diminish its flavor and make the dressing congeal. To remedy this, let the salad warm up slightly at room temperature. A last-minute squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkling of fruity olive oil and a bit more salt and freshly ground pepper will easily perk it up. PASTA AND FRESH SPINACH SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND FETA CHEESE Use any short, pretty shape of pasta you like for this variation of the classic Greek salad of greens, tomatoes, feta cheese and black olives. If you like, substitute thin strips of smoked fish or smoked chicken for the cheese. If using mushrooms, choose very fresh ones and slice them at the last minute so they won't discolor. 4 to 6 small ripe meaty tomatoes, diced, or 1 to 11⁄2 cups halved cherry tomatoes 1 sweet red or yellow pepper, cut in thin strips (optional) 2 Tbsp. basil, cut in thin slivers, or 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or 3⁄4 tsp. dried 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste 1 Tbsp. lemon juice or red or white wine vinegar, or more to taste salt and freshly ground pepper 4 to 5 cups spinach, stems removed, leaves rinsed well, patted dry, or half spinach and half romaine or mixed baby lettuces 100 gr. to 120 gr. pasta spirals or medium shells (about 11⁄2 cups) 1⁄2 small red onion, cut in thin slices, divided in slivers, or 2 chopped green onions 3⁄4 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional) 2⁄3 cup crumbled feta or Bulgarian cheese 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup halved pitted black olives Combine tomatoes, pepper strips, half the basil and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large bowl. Season with freshly ground pepper and a small pinch of salt. Cut spinach leaves in strips. Cook pasta uncovered in a pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain pasta, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add onion slivers and toss. Add spinach and pasta mixture to tomato mixture and mix lightly. Add mushrooms, remaining olive oil, lemon juice and half the feta cheese and toss lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve salad at room temperature, topped with remaining feta cheese and with black olives. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.