Little pasta, big impact

Think small when making potluck pasta salads.

Couscous with watermelon, watercress and feta (photo credit: Courtesy)
Couscous with watermelon, watercress and feta
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What is orzo? How do you cook couscous? Can you say orecchiette? There’s a dizzying array of dry pastas on store shelves. Some have fancy names for something that’s basically macaroni.
We’re giving big pasta like elbows and corkscrews the holiday off and downsizing for potluck salads.
Too often dainty pastas like orzo and ditalini wind up in soups, but they’re great for salads and just as economical as their big sisters. And they cook more quickly because of their size, so you can make pasta salad in a snap.
Larger pasta shapes tend to overwhelm the other ingredients. Small ones make room for scooping it all up in every bite.
Pasta salads are must-haves for feeding a crowd because they go a long way. When making, allow about 1 cup of salad per serving if you’re having just one salad, and a half cup if you have two or more salads.
About 50 percent of your salad should be made up of pasta, and the rest should be vegetables or other ingredients.
Here are some smaller shapes to try: Orzo is rice-shaped. Besides salads and soups, you can serve it as a side dish or stuff it in hollowed tomatoes.
Couscous comes in different sizes. Use the larger size for salads, and try the whole wheat one as well.
In Italian, orecchiette (oh-rayk-kee-EHTtay) means “little ears,” after the pasta’s shape. Orecchiette is a good change-up for salad because it’s not super small but still not huge.
Whatever pasta you choose, putting it in a salad offers an easy way to use the other bits and pieces lurking in your refrigerator.
Have half a bell pepper or cucumber? Chop it up and toss it in.
You can use just about any raw or cooked vegetable in a pasta salad. Meats, too.
Think chunks of salami, pastrami and even leftover rotisserie chicken. Or for meatless meals, use shredded or cut up cheeses.
Smaller pastas do better with a vinaigrette- style dressing. That way, they don’t get lost in heavy mayonnaise and other creamy dressings. A fruity extra virgin olive oil works best, but you also can use regular olive oil.
And if you can’t bear to stray from the corkscrew or penne pastas, you can find mini versions. A few years ago, Barilla pasta introduced a line of mini pastas. Look for farfelle (bow ties), penne, fusilli and gemelli.
ORZO AND BROCCOLI SALAD Serves 8 This salad gets a lot of flavor from chopped olives and garlic. Use good-quality red wine vinegar, and substitute 1 Tbsp.
chopped fresh oregano for dried, if desired.
✔ 120 gr. orzo ✔ 1 large head broccoli, cut into small florets (about 5 or 6 cups) ✔ ½ cup green onions, finely chopped ✔ ½ cup sliced black olives ✔ 1 small carrot, grated ✔ 1 cup corn, cut fresh from the cob (optional) ✔ 1 tsp. dried leaf oregano ✔ 1 clove garlic, pressed or crushed and finely minced ✔ ¼ tsp. ground black pepper ✔ ¹⁄3 cup olive oil ✔ ¼ cup red wine vinegar ✔ Salt to taste Cook orzo following package directions.
During the last 3 minutes, add the broccoli.
Drain in a colander and rinse lightly with cold water.
In a large bowl, place the orzo and broccoli, green onions, olives, carrot, corn if using, oregano, garlic and pepper.
In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the oil and red wine vinegar, and then toss with the salad ingredients. Add salt to taste.
Chill 1 hour before serving.
ORECCHIETTE SALAD WITH GRILLED VEGETABLES Serves 8 Grilling lessens the natural bitterness of endive. A splash of sweet balsamic vinegar balances it.
✔ 2 cups orecchiette ✔ 1 small head red endive, halved lengthwise and cored ✔ 2 small bulbs fennel, cored and cut into 1-cm. wedges, plus ¼ cup chopped fennel fronds ✔ 8 assorted baby bell peppers, halved and seeded ✔ ½ cup olive oil, divided ✔ Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 1 can (400 gr.) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (or use frozen beans, cooked and drained) ✔ Juice and zest of 1 lemon ✔ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley ✔ 1½ tsp. balsamic vinegar ✔ 85 gr. Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Add the pasta and cook until al dente (about 2 minutes less than the label directs). Drain and set aside.
Preheat a grill to medium-high. Place the endive, fennel wedges and bell peppers in a large bowl; drizzle with ¼ cup olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Grill vegetables, turning occasionally, until charred and crisp-tender, about 4 minutes for the peppers and endive, 6 minutes for the fennel. Remove from the grill and let cool, then cut into small pieces. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Add the cooked pasta, cannellini beans, the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, lemon juice and zest, parsley, balsamic vinegar, ¼ tsp.
salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine.
Add the Parmesan shavings and fennel fronds and toss again gently. Serve immediately or refrigerate, covered, up to 6 hours.
Bring to room temperature before serving.
DITALINI CHOPPED SALAD Serves 16 This is a perfect potluck salad because it feeds a crowd. Bell peppers, cucumber and romaine lettuce add crunch.
✔ 450 gr. ditalini or other small pasta ✔ 2 cups cubed sharp cheese, shredded ✔ 4 cups chopped romaine lettuce ✔ 1 medium red onion, diced ✔ 1 cup chopped red, yellow or orange peppers ✔ ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley ✔ 1 cup cucumber, seeded and diced For dressing ✔ 2 large shallots, peeled ✔ 3 cloves garlic, peeled ✔ ¼ cup Dijon mustard ✔ ¼ cup red wine vinegar ✔ 2 tsp. sugar ✔ ¾ cup olive oil ✔ Salt and pepper to taste Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and spread it out on a baking sheet for 30 minutes.
In a large serving bowl, combine pasta, cheese, romaine, red onion, peppers, parsley and cucumber.
For the dressing, place the shallots and garlic in a blender or food processor. Pulse several times to chop. Add the Dijon, red wine vinegar and sugar. Pulse to combine.
With the blender or processor running, slowly add the oil in a steady stream to emulsify. Taste and adjust seasonings and ingredients as necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine.
PTITIM WITH WATERMELON, WATERCRESS AND FETA Serves 8 (as a side dish) This refreshing salad blends sweet and salty. It will hold an hour or two in the refrigerator but is best served immediately.
Substitute spinach or arugula for watercress if you wish.
✔ 2 tsp. kosher salt, divided ✔ 1 cup Ptitim (Israeli couscous) ✔ 1 seedless watermelon ✔ 200 to 220 gr. block feta cheese ✔ Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons ✔ ¼ cup olive oil ✔ 2 Tbsp. honey ✔ ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper ✔ 2 cups (packed) watercress or arugula In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups of water and 1 tsp. salt to a boil over mediumhigh heat. Stir in the couscous and reduce the heat so the mixture simmers. Cover the pan and cook for 8 to 10 minutes until the couscous is tender. Drain and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove and discard the watermelon rind. Cut the flesh into 1 ½-cm.
cubes. Set aside. Cut the block of feta in half horizontally so you have two blocks. Cut each block into 1 ½-cm. cubes. Set aside.
In a bowl, whisk together the lemon zest and juice, olive oil, honey, 1 tsp. salt and black pepper. Add the cooled couscous, watermelon, feta and watercress. Gently toss ingredients to evenly combine.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.