Being hit by an unexpected heat wave is no fun. Italy’s suffering from premature summer and it has caught us all off guard.
Who wants to cook, fry and bake in this weather? Italians fortunately rely on a vast array of summer dishes that require minimal cooking. Think prosciutto and cantaloupe melon, or prosciutto and figs, stuffed in pizza bianca. Also, insalata di riso, an Italian fridge-cleaning staple for the hotter months. The list goes on to include panzanella, tuna and cannellini salad, caprese salad made with milky mozzarella and the first heirloom tomatoes. There’s also Nicoise and Cobb salad; zucchini noodles; cold soups like gazpacho and vichyssoise and macedonia di frutta (a pretty name for fruit salad), to mention a few.
And then there’s pasta salad.
Italians can’t do without their beloved pasta, even in this heat. So pasta salads abound on the Italian summer table. But these are not your average bowls of mayo-strewn limp noodles, no.
Made with assorted seasonal vegetables and greens, meat or fish, pasta salads also can rely on a variety of pasta shapes, such as broken spaghetti, penne, bow-tie farfalle, trofie and more. There really is no rule when it comes to pasta salad in Italy. Except for maybe one: nailing the correct texture.
The most common error when whipping up “pasta fredda” is drying it out during the cooling phase. What most people end up doing is adding olive oil, but that only makes pasta salad overly greasy. In order to avoid this, it’s important to do the one thing Italians would not be caught dead doing when normally cooking pasta the rest of the time: rinsing it under cold running water.
This stops the cooking process and removes the starch coating which will make cold pasta gummy. Saving some starchy cooking water before rinsing is always a good idea. This will help smoothe the chilled dressed pasta in case it gets too chalky, like with pesto for example, which tends to dry out on your noodles like quick-dry cement.
All you need when making pasta salad, really, is time. The benefits of cooking regular pasta is that once it’s drained and dressed it goes straight to the table and into the plates. With pasta salad there’s a wait time for chilling. A trick – besides the cold running water hack – is spreading the drained pasta out on a clean kitchen towl, which effectively speeds up the cooling process.
Once your pasta has cooled down, mix in the cold/raw ingredients and refrigerate for an hour. Season right before serving!
Here are a few of my favorite summer pasta salads:
Crudaiola pasta salad
This is made with finely chopped raw bell peppers (red and yellow), tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber. I like to use penne or spirals for this, but any stubby pasta shape works for this dish. Cheese lovers like me can add crumbled primosale or goat’s milk cacioricotta cheese…
Pasta alla Checca
This classic summer pasta si made with chopped fresh heirloom tomatoes, basil, olive oil and cubes of mozzarella. Need I say more?
Zucchini noodles, pesto and mint pasta salad
Store-bought pesto is always in my pantry. I choose an organic brand that jars only the 5 elements of classic Genoa pesto: basil, pecorino, garlic, olive oil and pine-nuts. Mix your zucchini noodles with spaghetti or linguine to create a colorful tangle. Add dollops of pesto sauce and only a few fresh mint leaves, which tend to overpower all other flavors.
Egg and Tuna pasta salad
I love bowties tossed with crumbled oil-packed tuna, hard boiled eggs and cubed mozzarella. No need for a dressing, if you must, try olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice.
Arugula pesto pasta salad
This tangy alternative to basil pesto is made by blending together 2 cups of peppery arugula, 1 cup of parmigiano, a thread of olive oil and a handful of cashew nuts and then using the obtained sauce to dress fusilli-type spirals.
Tuna, tomato, red onion & cannellini bean pasta salad
Adding pasta to tuna and white bean salad is a cheat. All it needs is tube-shaped pasta, such as maccheroni or paccheri and fresh basil leaves.
Mango, bresaola & ginger pasta salad
Bresaola is lean cured beef which posesses a delicately spicy flavor. The cubes of sweet, ripe mango pair wonderfully with bresaola. I make this pasta salad with any leftover pasta shapes that share the same cooking time, and I dress everything with an emulsion of olive oil, lime juice, shaved ginger, salt and a drop of sesame oil.
Leftover chicken curry pasta salad
Leftovers make great pasta salad ingredients! Instead of heating, break apart and mix pieces of left over chicken curry with fresh apple slices, shaved coconut, chopped spring onion and your choice of pasta. Voilà, lunch.
Asian chicken pasta salad
I toss cooled down pasta with shredded rotissery chicken, peanuts, croutons and quartered peaches and dress with emulsified low-salt soy sauce, olive oil and peanut butter.
What’s your favorite summer dish?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.