asta salads are an Italian summer staple, all the more so when temperatures soar.
It doesn’t matter whether these pasta concoctions were made as “fridge-cleaners” or to steer clear of stoves when the Rome sun’s already busy cooking you.
When it’s 35C outside, baking and frying lose their appeal, as does long cooking prep. But before an evening passeggiata, gelato included, Italians need food, and pasta salad is their favorite solution.
But simple pasta fredda can go terribly wrong, if prepared carelessly. The most common error is allowing too much moisture to drain away during the cooling phase. Cooks try to compensate by adding olive oil or – or worse – mayonnaise. The result is a fatty, slippery, entirely off-putting dish. By then, all the al dente bite you cooked in is long gone.
To avoid this, it’s essential to gently drain the pasta. Add a gentle splash of cold water before allowing further cooling. While this practice is unnecessary if not downright forbidden in the cooking of every day pasta dishes, it’s essential to making good pasta fredda. A useful trick is keeping a cup of starchy cooking water at hand, letting it cool and later using it as necessary to dissolve thick sauces and revive lost moisture (particularly in pesto-based condiments).
Here are a few of my favorite pasta salads to make for memorable, and cooling, summer meals.
Pasta fredda tricolore (cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil): It’s tomato season, finally! The stars of the Mediterranean table go by the names Cherry, datterino and Piccadilly. Heirloom varieties are yellow, orange, and bright crimson.
Chop or halve the smaller poms and toss them with cooked and cooled down farfalle, penne or pipe rigate, three pasta shapes that compliment milky mozzarella bits and freshly torn leaves of fragrant basil. Season the dish with a thread of extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Leftovers can be packed in the cooler and brought to the beach/picnic.
Pasta fredda al tonno (Tuna and heirloom tomatoes): Italians are big fans of oil-packed tuna, especially in summer. A refreshing and popular pasta salad solution involves emptying a few cans of drained tuna into a bowl of cooled pasta and halved heirloom tomatoes, a handful of pitted black olives, and a few rinsed capers. For a Niçoise twist, add quartered hard-boiled eggs. The seasoning is again simple: oregano, olive oil, lemon juice and a dash of sea salt. Remember to chill before serving.
Pasta fredda al pesto (Pesto pasta, a Genoa summer classic): Pasta al pesto is a popular chilled offering. Boil the pasta in salted water with a goodly number of chopped potatoes and trimmed green beans. Drain and dress with fresh pesto sauce. If the result is on the dry side, remember the pasta cooking water trick mentioned at the start. Additional olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and fresh basil leaves makes for excellent garnish. Grated pecorino cheese does the rest. Leftovers make for a delicious frittata.
Insalata di riso (Rice salad): This is a beach staple. I remember rice salad brought to the seaside and devoured under beach umbrellas after bathers changed into dry suits. Insalata di riso consists of cooled down parboiled rice tossed with leftovers and fresh veggies. This means tomatoes, sweet corn kernels, the ubiquitous can of tuna, or in place of that, yesterday’s shredded rotisserie chicken, finely chopped steak or cubed ham. Pickles often make their way into the mix, so can lovely artichoke hearts, mini cornichons, giardiniera relish, olives or Martini onions. The dressing is again minimal: olive oil, salt and pepper.
Vegetarian couscous salad: This dish, yet another staple, is easy to make in large batches, which is helpful since lots of couscous goes a long way. The crushed semolina (durum wheat) granules are quickly toasted in a pan with olive oil, then covered in boiling water and left to revive as they cool. In the meantime, I open a can of chickpeas, rinse, and add them to a large salad bowl along with raw zucchini noodles, julienne carrots, cherry tomatoes, red Tropea onions or scallions, fresh mint, chives and chopped basil leaves (and any other vegetable I have in the fridge). Once the couscous is completely cool, I add it to the bowl and season it all with sea salt and good drizzles of extra virgin olive oil. The gluten-free alternative is swapping the couscous with quinoa.
Orzo & Farro (Pearl barley and spelt salad with sweet pepper dressing): Orzo (barley) is a sensational summer carb. Farro (spelt) was beloved by the ancient Romans, who fed it in soup form to their troops. Pairing the two cereals is tasty and filling. When it’s my turn to host my son’s ravenous teenage friends, lunch is orzo & farro salad. Once the farro and barley are boiled, the pearl grains (no husks) cook in 15 minutes. I drain them well and let the mix cool before adding bite-sized mozzarella balls and freshly chopped arugula, and top with my war-horse sweet pepper dressing. I toss 1 red and 1 yellow bell pepper in the blender with 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of salt, and ¼ cup vegetable broth. I blitz until creamy and completely emulsified. I toss everything with the resulting dressing and watch my Roman troops eat.
Greek (pasta) salad: Coarsely chopped tomatoes, red onion, cucumber and pitted Kalamata olives with crumbled feta can double as a perfect summer pasta salad. The ideal pasta shape for this is large “paccheri” tubes, into which the ingredients play hide and seek. The dressing is again in the name of simplicity: olive oil, oregano and crumbled pistachio nuts.
And who said anything about turning on the oven.