How to eat: pasta salad

What is it about pasta salad that people find so triggering? “Nothing on this earth will ever lead me to make a pasta salad,” wrote Nigel Slater in 2006, describing the concept as “disgusting”. Almost 15 years later, its ability to summon the unbending militant in otherwise reasonable, mild-mannered food writers is undimmed. In May, Diana Henry tweeted: “Two words I do not want to hear together: PASTA SALAD.”

Had Henry been more exact, and specified creamy pasta salad, How to Eat could have given that a like. Possibly created by the fusion of Germanic potato salads and Italian pasta, mayo-drenched pasta salads are, as Daniel Gritzer once put it: “One of the worst things to ever come out of the American kitchen.” And, to be fair, that is not a short list.

But How to Eat (HTE) – the series identifying how best to enjoy Britain’s favourite dishes – takes a more nuanced view of the wider pasta salad spectrum. Without the mayo and, given the right treatment, this carby combo of pasta and dressed veg can shine. How to Eat asks you to give, if not peace, then pasta salads a chance.

But first, let’s lay down some ground rules for a dish that, in polite foodie circles, dare not speak its name.

Warm pasta salad …
… is an oxymoron. That, my friend, is pasta. A pasta dish. Not a salad. The best pasta salads combine cooked ingredients, but are designed so that those cooked ingredients will work their magic at room temperature, not lukewarm from the pan. Unless you think carbonara is a salad?

Setting

Rarely can a food’s reputation have suffered so much, not because of what it is, but how it is usually eaten. Cast your mind back to the pre-Covid world, where people occupied hutch-like work-units called offices. Invariably, that is where you would find yourself eating a pasta salad al desko, or – if eating in front of your computer was too painful a reminder of your enslavement to the late-capitalist machine – sitting on a bench on a windy precinct, picking at your meagre supermarket pasta salad with a spindly plastic fork. Beating The Man, but still miserable. Dreaming instead of a hot bag of Greggs swag.

It would be difficult to take pleasure in any cold food in those dreary circumstances, much less a tub of fridge-cold, factory-processed pasta in a vinegary dressing. HTE has no truck with the passive-aggressive snobbery that everything tastes better if you make it yourself. It could name 101 products that the industrial (fast) food complex has nailed, from ice-cream to chicken kiev. Making pizza at home is more punishment than pleasure.

But get to work charring vegetables, stoning olives, chopping herbs and whisking up a simple lemon and olive oil dressing and, undoubtedly, once that marinates together for a few hours in the tub, you will have something – please read the next section in the smuggest voice you can muster – vastly superior to anything you can buy off the shelf. Importantly, pasta salad is also immeasurably improved by eating it out of a sturdy container with a fork that does not bend, and doing so after it has had a chance to warm up, rather than straight from the supermarket chiller cabinet. Your salad needs to reach room temperature so that the compounds that give foods their flavours have sufficient energy to exhibit their natural volatility.

Size matters
This is a dish usually eaten on the move. Therefore, it needs to be easily transferrable from receptacle A (Tupperware) to receptacle B (your gaping cakehole) without any cutting and wrestling. It should be simply forkable: you need to be able to pierce and pin down your pasta and other ingredients, later scooping up the dregs, ideally in a way that allows you to get a little bit of everything in each mouthful. To that end, the ingredients must be cut small enough that none are larger than the pasta shape you have chosen, which should be diddy enough (penne, fusilli, farfalle, orechiette, conchiglie etc) that you can get a few in your mouth in one go.

In a way, the success of a pasta salad is a test of your commitment: are you prepared to chop fastidiously enough to make it work? Want to use tiny, silky rice-like orzo? That is a discerning choice, but it will require you to painstakingly dice the other ingredients down. It is worth the effort. You are, to paraphrase L’Oreal, worth it.

Some quite incredible recipes suggest spaghetti, pappardelle and other noodles for salads. Good luck with that. And the clean-up operation. Your aforementioned workstation (now box-bedroom-ad-hoc-laptop-perch) will end up covered in stray bits of oil, parsley and tomato as you transfer twirling mop-heads of pasta to your gob. Since HTE recently over-enthusiastically hoovered up its # key, it is now avoiding all foods that might require it to later clean a keyboard.

Dressing for dinner
It may seem perverse to discuss the dressing before the ingredients. But that is the thing about a salad dressing. It gets everywhere. It is all pervading. It matters. A lot. HTE has already established that creamy pasta salads, dripping in mayonnaise or, worse, salad cream, are a gloypy chore (“gloypy” meaning gluey and gloopy). Even the perkiest flavours are muffled by that heavy coating of fat. Sour cream is a sprightlier option but tends not to cling to pasta, collecting instead at the bottom of the tub.

Commercial olive oil-dressed pasta salads are marginally better but, typically, sweet and vinegary in a clumsily unbalanced way. Far from being natural allies, vinegar and pasta are actively antagonistic, combining to create strangely astringent, metallic flavours. Use lemon juice in your olive oil dressing. It is more forgiving. Otherwise, keep it simple: chopped herbs, salt, pepper, a little finely chopped chilli or mild Tabasco if you want some heat (no mustard or crazier hot sauces; this is not a raucous gig).

If in doubt, pesto it out. HTE is firmly of the belief that pesto, even the worst pesto, bulked-out with bamboo fibres and potato flakes, makes everything better.

Ingredients
Confusingly, raw salad ingredients (tomato, cucumber, celery, the dreaded grated carrot, onion) do not work in pasta salads. This is not a garden salad into which you can lob some macaroni. Thankfully, the inexplicable habit of sitting pasta salads on a bed of rocket has also largely ceased.

Instead, pasta salads require cured, processed or cooked ingredients that retain a firm or clearly differentiated texture (no slimy spinach, mushy green beans or flabby mushrooms) and that, when cool, still deliver an explosion of flavour. Abide by those two rules and you will not go far wrong. For instance, if adding meat, you would not add woolly, flavour-deficient shredded chicken, expensive prosciutto or bacon. Who wants to eat cold, congealed bacon? But you might well chop a few punchy sausages through a pasta salad or fry a little chorizo, with the added bonus that the oil released can be used as the base for your dressing.

There may be nothing intrinsically Italian about pasta salad (the 2005 edition of The Silver Spoon contains just two pasta salad recipes and one of those is for curried penne), but, unsurprisingly, in order to achieve a satisfying balance – sunshine-filled but not overly sweet flavours, something tangy to punctuate them, a bass note of umami to anchor everything – Mediterranean flavours are not a bad place to start.

For instance, puttanesca’s core components (garlic, capers, olives, passata, anchovies for savoury roundness and heft; perhaps a few preserved artichoke hearts for luck), can be deployed hot or cold. Likewise, using three variations on the tomato: good quality sun-dried, roasted and tinned, you could whip up something pretty great, again using juices from the roasted tomatoes as the dressing’s base. Charring, roasting and toasting everything from peppers and broccoli to pine nuts or almonds, will help build up layers of flavour, but, as per the Washington Post’s advice, do not overload your salad with too many ingredients. Think Rothko or Reich. Less is more.

While some ingredients immediately rule themselves out – asparagus is too prissy; peas feel juvenile (use broad beans instead); posh seafood seems an egregious waste – cheese has its uses, while also being woefully overused. Utilising finely grated parmesan, grana padano or pecorino as seasoning works (do not go OTT, this is not a cheese salad), as does feta, well crumbled so it almost “emulsifies” in any excess liquid to become a secondary dressing, so creating a dressing duet.

Using mozzarella cold, however, when it so often tastes bland and grainy is a baffling error. It adds nothing. Nor do ricotta or burrata, which, in order to fully shine, in their mild, intensely creamy ways, need to be showcased on the plate and offset with piquant sauces and sharper vegetables, rather than being sparingly tumbled together in a salad where they are likely to disintegrate.

When
Lunch (AKA dinner, up north). Like a three-chord punk classic, pasta salad achieves perfection in its brevity and simplicity. The pasta salad is a dish of limited flavours compelling in a compact serving. Were you to eat a bucket of it for tea, it might get rather boring – like a triple-vinyl, prog rock epic that thinks it is far deeper than it is.