I can’t make enough salads during the summer! They are cool, refreshing, flavorful, and perfect for hot weather dining. However, it’s sometimes hard to get filled up on a bowl of green salad! Don’t get me wrong, crispy lettuce and greens make for an excellent base for all sorts of good toppings (check out my Steak and Spring Mix Salad with Mustard Caper Vinaigrette recipe), but there are times when I’m looking for something a little more substantial. Pasta salads are a great alternative for those craving a more carb-based meal! Have you ever wondered the difference between a pasta salad and a macaroni salad? Growing up in Minnesota, I ate a ton of macaroni salads. When I moved to upstate New York, pasta salad replaced the macaroni salads. Now living in Florida, macaroni and pasta salads are both accepted. While technically macaroni is pasta, the names are not interchangeable. Macaroni salad is usually made with elbow or shell pasta/macaroni and tossed in a creamy, sweetened mayonnaise dressing. The ingredients typically include shredded carrots, bell peppers, celery, chopped pickles, and sometimes, apple.
Pasta salads tend to be oil and vinegar-based and use “short pasta” like rotini, fusilli, penne, or farfalle (bow tie). The ingredients likely include cucumbers, black olives, tomatoes, spinach, artichoke hearts, and garlic. Chopped or sliced meat (grilled chicken, ham, or salami) and shredded or cubed cheese round out the salad. My Easy Italian Pasta Salad is a variation of a classic Antipasto and features ham, fresh mozzarella, fresh veggies, and herbs and tossed in a tangy homemade Italian vinaigrette. Fresh and colorful, this salad is as good as any you will find in a restaurant!
A pasta salad starts with the pasta! My pasta of choice for salads is rotini or fusilli, which is pasta twisted into a helix or corkscrew shape. Rotini has a tighter twist than fusilli, which has a looser helix. That said, any “short” pasta will work. I use what I have in my pantry! I only buy pasta when it’s on sale, which is often. My grocery store is big on offering BOGO (buy one/get one) deals on pasta. This recipe calls for 8 ounces of pasta which is usually half a box or package. For the appetites in my house, this amount will feed four, with no leftovers (which I want as fridge space is limited). If you’re feeding more or like leftovers, simply double the recipe. The pasta is cooked per the package directions (in generously salted water) to the desired degree of doneness. Most folks prefer their pasta cooked al dente (tender but firm). I like my pasta a little softer, so I let it cook a couple of minutes longer. We want the pasta cold, so after it’s cooked, rinse it in cold water and place it in the fridge to chill out while you prep the veggies and make the dressing.
Prepping the veggies will take about 10 minutes. It’s nothing complicated, just basic cutting, chopping, and dicing. If needed, dice the ham and cube the cheese, or to save time, buy pre-cut. If you prefer, substitute salami for the ham.
It takes just minutes to whisk together the dressing. Use a good quality olive oil to produce a flavorful, robust taste. No red wine vinegar? Substitute white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or rice vinegar. To maximize the fresh garlic taste, grate the garlic instead of mincing. Mincing will result in big flavor; however, grating the garlic will release the essential juices and oils and demands attention with every bite.
A tad of sugar balances out the tanginess. (Honey or artificial sweetener can also be used.) Italian seasoning is a must-have ingredient in even the most limited pantries! This herb/spice blend is an all-purpose mixture of the most commonly used spices, including sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and basil, packaged in just the right flavor combination. Italian seasoning can be used in nearly everything, saving money and space. Add the onions to the dressing to slightly soften and sweeten them.
Remove the pasta from the fridge. In a large bowl, combine the pasta with the veggies. Pour in the dressing and gently toss until thoroughly mixed. Allow the salad to chill in the refrigerator for around 30 minutes allowing the flavors to meld. Before serving, tear the basil leaves and sprinkle them on top of the salad, saving a couple of leaves for garnish.
Every bite of this salad is an explosion of flavors and textures ranging from sweet to salty and soft to crunchy. No one ingredient overpowers the others. Serve with a baguette for a light dinner or heavy lunch. It also makes a beautiful side dish or a starter. This salad is an excellent addition to cook-outs, barbeques, and potlucks. Enjoy!
Easy Italian Pasta SaladCourse: Salads, PastaCuisine: Italian InspiredDifficulty: Easy
Easy Italian Pasta Salad is a variation of a classic Antipasto and features ham, fresh mozzarella, fresh veggies, and herbs and tossed in a zesty homemade Italian vinaigrette. Fresh and colorful, this salad is as good as any you will find in a restaurant!
8 ounces Rotini pasta, cooked as per instructions, drained and rinsed under cold water
8 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
½ cucumber, diced
4 ounces ham – diced
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
One 12-ounce jar marinated quartered artichoke hearts, drained
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons torn fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (honey)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt (plus additional for salting the pasta water)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
- Prep: Prepare the pasta as per the package instructions, drain and chill in the refrigerator until the other ingredients are prepped. Clean and halve the tomatoes. Peel and dice the half cucumber. If necessary, dice the ham. Slice the pitted kalamata olives in half. Drain the artichoke hearts and remove any hard outer leaves. Cut the fresh mozzarella cheese in cubes. Mince or grate the garlic. Finely chop the red onion.
- In a one quart Pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, vinegar, Italian seasoning, sugar, salt, and pepper and whisk until mixed. Add the chopped red onion.
- Remove the pasta from the refrigerator. In a large bowl combine the pasta with the tomatoes, cucumber, ham, olives, artichoke, and cheese. Pour the vinegar dressing over the pasta and gently tossed until evenly combined. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to combine. Prior to serving sprinkle with the torn basil leaves.
- Rotini: Substitute fusilli, rigatoni, penne, corkscrew, or elbow macaroni
- Ham: Substitute salami
- Sugar: Substitute artificial sweetener or honey
- Fresh basil for garnish: Substitute parsley
- Red wine vinegar: Substitute white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar
- Italian Seasoning: Substitute any combination of oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme or sage
More pasta recipes…
Fresh basil for garnish: Substitute parsley