Last time I made a big bowl of pasta salad in Florida, you all asked for the recipe! Naturally, I don’t have a “recipe” but I do have a general method of how I throw pasta salad together with whatever I have in the fridge–AKA a classic Jess “no recipe recipe”–and THAT you shall receive!
I don’t think there’s a better lunch or snack around than a bowl of pasta salad, especially on a hot day! The good news is that you can usually throw one together with whatever you have on hand–whatever you have in the crisper drawer or the pantry can be good in pasta salad! Whether you’re making a bowl for yourself to eat all week long, or you’re cooking for a crowd–EVERYONE gets excited for pasta salad! Being able to whip some up with whatever you’ve got laying around is truly a gift that keeps on giving!
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Best kinds of pasta for pasta salad:
You’ll likely want something that is a small to medium shape–but honestly, even spaghetti noodles can be made into pasta salad! Seriously-whatever you have will work just fine! I have found that traditional regular old pasta works best for pasta salad (rather than a chickpea pasta, lentil pasta etc–as those tend to get gummy). If you’re gluten free, just go for gluten-free Barilla, as according to my research, that’s best!
My favorite pasta shapes for pasta salad are farfalle (bowtie pasta), penne, orecchiette, fusili, cavatappi, or a small pasta like orzo, macaroni, or ditalini. (Tip: If you have a baby or toddler, I love ditalini because it’s small enough for them to eat and I don’t have to chop it into tiny pieces, haha!) You could also used a filled pasta–like the fresh tortellini you can find in the fresh pasta section! Just make sure you’re using a bite-size.
What kind of veggies to put in pasta salad?
Again, whatever you have in the fridge is great! Sliced carrots, chopped broccoli, and diced bell pepper are my favorites. I love to soften them so they aren’t totally raw (although with the bell peppers it’s a personal preference, you can totally leave them raw!) To do this you can steam them, sauté them in a pan, or simply just throw them in the microwave with some olive oil to soften sightly. 1-2 minute cook time should do the trick! Whichever process you use, I like to sprinkle the veggies with some salt and pepper to ensure they’re seasoned properly!
In the summer, if I have the time, I love cutting corn off of corn on the cob and sautéing that to put in the pasta salad. Another AWESOME tip: if you’re grilling extra veggies for dinner, just make extra and chop them up for a pasta salad the next day. (Asparagus, zucchini, peppers, onions are all delicious grilled!)
Frozen + pantry staples:
Also, don’t forget about freezer and pantry staples. Frozen roasted corn or frozen peas are great in pasta salad. Have some giardiniera in the fridge? Or marinated olives? Or marinated artichokes or roasted red peppers? Those are delicious in pasta salad, too!
I love sliced raw red onion on pasta salad. If you typically don’t like the “bite” of red onion, just slice and soak it in a little ice water for about 30 minutes–it will help take that edge off and just leave you with a sweet, oniony crunch! Celery is also a great raw addition! Diced avocado also adds a delicious creaminess (although I would only add it to the portion you’re eating immediately, so it doesn’t brown!) I also love halved grape or cherry tomatoes! For greens–raw spinach, arugula, and chopped romaine all add great texture and flavor and stand up nicely to the pasta and dressing. (Tip: these don’t keep as well in the fridge as other veggies, so just add them when you’re ready to serve!)
Not required by any means, but fresh herbs are always a delicious addition! Add basil if you’re going with an Italian theme, cilantro or fresh sliced green onion are great for southwestern or latin-inspired flavors.
Now for the cheese!
I have used just about every kind of hard cheese in pasta salad with delicious results. (Aside from American cheese, I would skip that!) Only have string cheese? Or maybe a sliced sandwich cheese? That’s great! Dice that up and throw it in there. (Fun fact: I put diced string cheese in so many of my salads–it’s one of my favorite ingredients!) Cubed fresh mozzarella is also great–as is crumbled cheese, such as feta or queso fresco.
Personally, I love a veggie pasta salad all on its own, but if you’d like to make it more of a meal, you can definitely add protein! The easiest add is rotisserie chicken (couldn’t be easier!), but another great addition is salami or another diced/sliced Italian meat. You could also add in some sliced or diced hard boiled egg! Bacon is, of course, always a welcome addition to anything–so fry up a couple extra slices and throw that in! (Maybe a BLT themed pasta salad? With some avocado throw in too? SO GOOD!)
Now, what about the dressing?
My go-to: If you’re looking for the EASIEST solution and a classic– try my go-to. I mix store-bought Italian vinaigrette (can also use a Balsamic if you like!) with mayo if you want it creamy. Whatever ratio you like–the creamier you like it, the more mayo you should use. (Or just eliminate the mayo altogether if you don’t like it!) Just eyeball it. Mix a little at a time, pour it over your pasta salad–I’d say you probably want about a cup of dressing in total.
Seasoning mixes: Adding your favorite seasoning mix works great here too! Maybe an Italian herb blend, Herbs de Provence, or a Garlicky blend–Mrs. Dash makes great seasoning mixes, and The Spice House makes some of my favorite blends! Get creative! (Just watch the salt–if your seasoning has salt in it, just use less to season the rest of the pasta salad so it does’t get overly salty!)
Here are some other pasta salad combos to try:
Pesto veggie pasta salad: For dressing, mix store-bought pesto with mayo (optional, only if you want creamy!) If you need it thinned out, add a bit of your best olive oil. Serve with pasta and veggies of your choice. If you’d like cheese, mozzarella or feta would be great here! You could also add sun dried tomatoes.
Elote pasta salad: Make a dressing of lime juice, mayo, sour cream or greek yogurt, salt, pepper, and adobo or fajita spices–add fresh cilantro, diced raw onion, fresh or frozen sautéed corn, and queso fresco.
BLT pasta salad: Diced bacon, halved grape tomatoes, either the classic or pesto dressing above, and toss in chopped romaine or arugula to serve. Optional: add diced avocado for a BLTA salad!
Antipasto pasta salad: Classic dressing above, plus your favorite antipasto ingredients: salami, olives, pickled veggies (and/or giardiniera), marinated artichokes, and/or diced fresh or jarred red bell peppers! For an extra kick, drizzle a little bit of giardiniera brine to the dressing! Can include diced fresh mozzarella or string cheese, or shaved parm!
Greek pasta salad: Store-bought greek salad dressing (can mix with mayo if you want creaminess!), diced feta, kalamata olives, chickpeas, sliced cucumbers, and can also mix in fresh spinach or arugula! (Just do this for the portion you’re serving so it doesn’t get soggy in the fridge!)