In this season of comebacks, the food world deserves one of its own: pasta salad. This done-to-death dish deserves the same second chance currently being handed to 1980s pop stars, caped crusaders and even television's witch, Samantha. All pasta salad needs is a makeover to reveal its long-hidden charm.
The main rule for any successful hot pasta dish is keep it simple. But cold pasta salads had become vehicles for some of the worst kitchen techniques: overcooking, overdressing and overwhelming with too many ingredients.
Great pasta salads, tossed with just enough dressing and a combination of fresh vegetables, herbs, and grilled meats, beans or shellfish, can be more than a side dish at a buffet supper. The right ingredients can yield easy make-ahead dinners for hot nights. Basil-flecked mozzarella cheese and tomato salads and shrimp paired with dill and feta cheese are some of the winning tickets we offer here.
There are a few more rules involved, however. Follow them and you'll realize this new realm of pasta salads has all the makings to be one of the summer's most triumphant returns.
* Cool the pasta. Yes, yes, yes. You should never rinse hot pasta before dressing it except when making pasta salad. Rinsing the just-cooked pasta extracts excess starch that can make the pasta gluey, ensures that the pasta will stay firm and eliminates the need for a lot of dressing. Hot pasta will soak up dressing like a sponge, but cooled pasta needs the barest coating.
* Resist the urge to overdress. The flavor in a pasta salad should come from its guest stars -- fresh herbs, cheese, vegetables, meat. The oil and the vinegar just help them along. Always start with less dressing than you think you will need.
* Choose proven combinations. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Pick pairings you know work: mozzarella and basil; chicken and tarragon; Parmesan cheese and, well, anything.
* Avoid too many ingredients. Just because you're making a pasta salad, don't succumb to the compulsion to empty the contents of your refrigerator into the bowl. A well-made salad deserves fresh ingredients.
* Hold back on the salt shaker. Oversalting anything can be bad, but for some reason, pasta is particularly vulnerable. By all means, salt the pasta's cooking water, but then set the salt aside. Smoked, fresh or hard cheeses, shellfish and grilled vegetables that have been lightly seasoned are the types of ingredients that bring strong signatures without a lot of additional salt.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick was the recipe editor for the Food section from 1994 to 2002.
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