When is the last time you attended a potluck function — a neighborhood cook-out, company outing, family reunion, or church picnic? For me, and most of us, it’s definitely been well over a year (pre-COVID). Thankfully, in many parts of the country, things are slowly opening up and beginning to return to “normal.” This hopefully (and optimistically) means the return to social group functions which involve EATING!!! As excited as I am because I love to cook, I understand that not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of bringing a homecooked dish to an event. While it’s tempting to go the store-bought deli option, I have a really easy and delicious solution. This pasta-tively amazing salad just shouts SUMMER! Best of all, it’s super easy – a perfect recipe for young cooks and non-cooks! It is also totally flexible – almost every ingredient can be substituted for something that you have on-hand or like better! Hey, it’s why this is called Impress NOT Stress!
This salad is an updated version of a classic macaroni & broccoli potluck favorite. The bright green, crunchy broccoli, refreshing juicy red grapes, salty bacon, the nutty crunch of toasted walnuts are combined with the rotini pasta and coated in a creamy, tangy-sweet dressing.
The fresh produce in this salad is a huge reason for its appeal. While it’s easy enough to cut up ahead of broccoli into small florets, I’m a huge fan of buying the pre-washed and pre-cut broccoli florets (in the ready-to-steam) bags. At my grocery store, the price difference isn’t huge, and since nothing goes to waste, it’s a no-brainer for me. Not a fan of broccoli? Cauliflower will work just as well. You could also use Brussels sprouts; however, they will need to be cut in half and blanched. In this recipe, broccoli is used raw. However, suppose you want a brighter color and a slightly softer texture. In that case, go ahead and pop the florets in the microwave, covered with a wet paper towel in a small bowl, for about a minute (it’s even easier if you buy the ready-to-use bag). We don’t want to cook the broccoli; we are just blanching it. Remember, this is totally optional (it’s not included in the recipe).
The red grapes (or green grapes, if you prefer) need to be washed well and sliced in half. If you don’t like or don’t have fresh grapes, diced cucumber is a great substitute. While cukes lack the sweetness of the grapes, they definitely meet the criteria for refreshing and juicy. Chop the red onions. If you want to show off knife skills – dice them! A sweet onion or even green onions can be used instead.
Rotini pasta (the curly spirals) looks great in this salad. However, most pasta will work. Bow-tie pasta is traditional, but I don’t stock it in my pantry. Shells, corkscrews, elbow, or ziti are all excellent options. Be mindful that only 8 oz is needed – that’s usually half a box. Trust me, 8 ounces of pasta makes for 6-8 healthy servings. According to the package instructions, cook the pasta to “al dente” doneness, so it’s firm enough to hold its own when combined with the other ingredients and dressing.
In a mixing bowl (large enough to hold the pasta, grapes, and broccoli), whisk together the mayonnaise, sugar, red onion, vinegar, and salt. Use whatever type of mayo you like or have on hand. For the acid component, I like the taste of apple cider vinegar. Red wine vinegar also adds good flavor. After whisking up the dressing, give it a taste and add a twist or two of ground pepper, as per your liking.
Add the broccoli, cooked pasta, and grapes to the bowl, and stir to coat. Cover the bowl with some plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least an hour, so the flavors have time to mix and mingle.
While the pasta is getting happy in the fridge, use this time to cook up 8 strips of bacon. I highly recommend baking them on a wire rack inside a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet/pan in a preheated (350°F) oven for about 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the bacon. The crispier, the better! When done, remove the bacon and place it on a plate or cutting board lined with paper towels. Use another paper towel to put on top of the bacon.
The goal is to get it as dry as possible. Chop the bacon with a knife (my preference), as I prefer bigger, evenly sized bacon pieces in my salad, or use your hands and crumble it. This should go without saying, but if you don’t like bacon – omit it. No one will know!
The reason for lining the baking pan with foil is for easy clean-up! Let the bacon drippings harden and simply throw the foil away. Easy/breezy (translation: no stress!)
This is also a good time to toast the walnuts. This is best accomplished in a skillet, large enough to fit the nuts in a single layer. Heat the pan to med-high heat and cook for about 5 minutes. Do NOT walk away from the burner! The nuts need to be frequently stirred and constantly watched. I’m not kidding around. The nuts will go from looking and smelling beautiful to a burnt mess in a matter of seconds. As soon as they smell toasted, remove them from the pan onto a plate or bowl to cool.
Seriously, nothing is worse than the smell of burnt walnuts (worst than burnt popcorn), and they taste horrible. There’s no recourse once they blacken. It’s game-over. Obviously, this is the voice of experience speaking – experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want! I used walnuts because I think they pair really nicely with red grapes. Pecans, almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pepitas, or pine nuts will all add crunch and taste. If nut allergies are a concern, don’t use them. The salad will still be delicious.
When the salad has chilled, stir in the bacon and walnuts. If you want, transfer to a pretty bowl for serving. This salad tastes like summer! While it feeds a bunch, there’s no need to wait for a shared dish invitation. Make it for yourself and your family. The left-overs are great. If you want to turn it into a meal, try adding some diced ham, grilled chicken, or shrimp. My Sheet Pan Pretzel Chicken Nuggets when chopped up are also a great addition.
Pasta Salad with Broccoli and GrapesCourse: Salads, Sides, PastaCuisine: AmericanDifficulty: Easy
Enjoy the tastes of summer with this colorful, flavorful, and easy pasta salad! Refreshing juicy grapes, bright green crunchy broccoli, salty bacon, the nutty goodness of toasted walnuts, and al dente pasta is tossed with a tangy-sweet creamy. Perfect for cook-outs and potluck outings!
8 oz (1/2 lb) rotini pasta, cooked per to package directions
12 -16 oz fresh broccoli florets
2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
½ red onion, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper – to taste
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (see notes)
8 bacon slices, cooked & chopped (see notes)
- Prep: Prepare pasta according to package directions. Dice red onion. Slice the red grapes in half and, cut broccoli into florets.
- Whisk together mayonnaise, sugar, red onion, vinegar, and salt in a large bowl; season with pepper to taste. Add broccoli, cooked pasta, and grapes, and stir to coat. Cover and chill for at least one hour.
- While the salad is chilling. Cook and chop the bacon and toast the walnuts (see notes). Stir bacon and walnuts into salad just before serving.
- Toast walnuts: Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the walnuts to the hot, dry pan, only toasting as many walnuts as fit in the pan in a single layer. Cook, watching constantly and stirring frequently until the walnuts start to brown and they smell toasted—about 5 minutes.
- Bacon: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lay bacon on a wire rack inside a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove bacon from the baking sheet drain on a paper towel-lined cutting board. When cool, chop in pieces.
- Walnuts: Substitute chopped pecans, sliced almonds, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, or pepitas
- Pasta: Substitute bow-tie, shells, spirals, or ziti (cook as per package instructions)
- Grapes: Substitute green grapes, diced cucumber, or zucchini
- Zhoosh up: Add grilled chicken or shrimp, diced ham, or Sheet Pan Pretzel Chicken Nuggets