Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Don't serve it with a sandwich

For years, I hated any and all cold savory foods. Ice cream and certain pies could be cold if they wanted to be, but if it in any way involved salt, cheese, or especially meat, it must be hot or I wanted no part of it. And I do still feel that hot food should be hot, as in very hot,tongue-scorching hot, not lukewarm. A cousin of mine and I once had a joke that I would be a tiny eighty year old woman shouting "PIPING HOT OR NOT AT ALL!!" at the alarmed waiter taking my order of a bowl of soup in a restaurant.

Things have changed, in that way that they do, and my palate has expanded, in that way that it (thankfully) does. Now, I not only no longer scorn cold food with the fire of a thousand suns, I embrace it and crave it all the time. Chicken salad, tuna salad, deviled eggs, potato salad, and what general consensus presents as the most hated cold food of all: pasta salad.

Pasta salad, like regular hot pasta, is an excellent pantry-clearer and leftover user-upper, and if done right is darn tasty, too. I have two basic kinds of pasta salad I make: a vinegary version loaded with large, chunky vegetables and kidney beans, and a creamier version with tiny chopped vegetables and cheese. Both are delicious. Both are pretty to look at. And both absolutely, positively rely on the homemade dressing for their scrumptiousness.

The one I'd like to share today is the creamy tiny-veggie and cheese variety. It's so simple that it almost makes me a little ill, and so delicious that you will eat it until you are a little ill, too.

I'm sure you know how to boil pasta to al dente, so I won't waste your time or mine explaining it, but I must stress that you do not want to overcook your noodles or it will result in a silly mushy mess that will not be appetizing. Tri-color rotini are my preference- the creamy dressing clings to the ridges and they look so pretty! But feel free to use penne, rigatoni, or even plain old elbow mac. Once you've got your noodles going, go ahead and prep your cheese and veggies.
I had some picky eaters on my hands the night I was making this pasta salad, so as you can see here I only used green bell pepper and carrot. Very nearly mince the pepper; I personally love big chunks of pepper, but for some reason, the tiny pieces are just better in this. Shred the carrot the same size as the cheese. This picture hopefully shows the proportions that are so helpful in this sort of slapdashery: about twice as much cheese as veggies. The cheese pictured here is extra sharp cheddar. Colby Jack is perfectly acceptable too. But save your artisanal cheeses for a place they can really shine, not get masked by a dressing.

Assembly is mind-numbingly easy: mix drained cooled pasta with veggies, cheese, and enough creamy dreamy dressing to completely coat and moisten. The serving of pasta salad, however, is a bit trickier and often botched. First of all, don't serve it with a sandwich. This is an American fallacy that confuses me to no end- why serve a starch side-dish with something involving bread? Serve it with a simple salad, or with fried chicken, or- as I cannot seem to stop doing lately- topped with a scoop of chunk albacore tuna. And there you have it. Lunch, or a light dinner. Provided, of course, that you have no objection to cold savory foods.

Creamy Italian Vinaigrette

This dressing is my standard dressing for this version of pasta salad, but it is equally delicious as a green salad dressing, and marvelous tossed with boiled red potatoes and chives for a tangy potato salad. Excellent for crudites platters or as a tasty spread for a ripe tomato sandwich.

These measurements will make enough dressing for about a half a box of pasta. Double or divide to fit your needs. And as always, the seasonings are all about you, baby.

1 cup mayonnaise (Duke's is the best, I wouldn't steer you wrong)
3 tbsp red wine or apple cider vinegar (I used apple cider because I had it and I like it)
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tsp salad or good olive oil
1 tsp sugar

Blend all ingredients in a blender, food processor, or simply with a whisk in a metal bowl. You will want to blend it for several minutes in order to create the necessary emulsion between the lipids and acids (ie, mayo, oil, and vinegar). Taste for seasonings; salt is the most common thing that needs to be added, and can vary a great deal based on what kind of mayonnaise you use.

Option: Lemon juice can be substituted for the vinegar if you like, and makes an excellent sauce for a chilled asparagus salad.

1 comment:

  1. We're having creamy Italian garden salad with grilled chicken tonight! I like the idea of using the creamy dressing in pasta salad. Other ideas for veggies besides green pepper, though? I feel kind of burnt out on that particular pepper when it comes to salads.