Summer's Best-Dressed Pasta Salads Try them as a cool first course or a full supper

June 16, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It's just two words, but what a difference they can make in meal.

Without them, it could be a long, cold, stare into the refrigerator, a hasty thaw, a heated jumble of pots and pans, accompanied by stress and the sense of fleeting time.

With them, it can be a snap. One pot, one dish, one meal, cool and simple.

Pasta salad. Those are the magic words for summer suppers. Easy to put together, infinitely variable, nutritious and filling. And they don't, for the most part, heat up the kitchen.

What's more, they're ideal for entertaining -- elegant, inexpensive, expandable, perfect for those casual "bring-a-dish" parties that characterize the outdoor dining season.

Kim Acton, manager of Green Earth on Canterbury Road in Baltimore, knows first-hand of pasta salad's appeal. Customers "demand that I have it available," she says. The store's deli section usually has a number of selections -- "I must have on any occasion four different pasta salads" -- and everyone has a favorite. "Some people like Mexican flavors, some people like Greek style."

One faithful customer comes in every day for garden salads and some of each of the three or four pasta salad offerings, she says. "I could set my watch by him."

Pasta salad appeals for lots of reasons, she says: "It's lighter, it's healthy -- and pasta's a soothing food, too -- it just feels good in the mouth. And there are so many different varieties of pasta. There are even wheat-free pastas for people who are allergic to wheat, and vegetable pastas . . ."

The result, she says, is that "some people are pastaholics -- like I am. I could eat pasta every day."

"I'll be offering a lot of pasta salads," says Tom O'Brien, new executive chef at Sutton Place Gourmet in Baltimore, who was recruited from Los Angeles to spark up the gourmet shop's cafe. "If you look at the food magazines, and the restaurants in New York and other places, they're definitely in trend again."

In the Baltimore area, with its humid summers, pasta salads make great first courses, he says. Or -- as with his Pacific Rim pasta salad -- "it's a full supper. It hits what I call the ice cream palate -- the crunchiness, the spice, the smoke -- it's got everything, you know what I mean?"

The trick with pasta salads, he says, is to keep them simple, "and have nice, fresh ingredients. Let your herbs work for you -- stay away from mayonnaise, stay away from cream."

Cook and food writer Faye Levy, who was born in Washington and now lives in Southern California, devotes the first chapter of her book "Sensational Pasta" (HPBooks, 1989, $14.95 paperback) to pasta salads, which she notes "are primarily American developments."

But it's easy to see why they're so popular: "Pasta possesses the qualities that make it the perfect modern food," she writes. "It cooks very quickly. It is economical. And it is being recommended as a staple more and more by nutritionists as Americans move from a high-protein to a higher-carbohydrate diet. Most important," she concludes, "pasta is delicious with every other ingredient, from carrots to caviar."

In fact, that marvelously mixable quality of pasta is a prime advantage for home cooks. First, it means you can create a delicious pasta salad from pretty much any ingredients you have on hand -- vegetables, seafood, leftover roast, frozen foods, canned or jarred tidbits such as sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, or artichoke hearts, whatever is available.

And, if you're trying to come up with a dish for a company picnic or for a neighborhood party, you can pick a pasta salad variation and be pretty sure there won't be anything else like it on the table -- other pasta salads, maybe, but none like yours.

If you haven't thought of two or three tasty variations already, here are some ideas to get you started.

The first recipe is from Kim Acton of Green Earth.

Mexican fiesta pasta salad

Serves eight to 10

1 pound tri-color corkscrew pasta

1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

1 20-ounce jar salsa (see note)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup pitted black olives, halved

1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup shredded carrot

1 cup chopped red onion

1 package frozen yellow corn, thawed

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 teaspoons cumin, to taste

Cayenne pepper, to taste

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook pasta according to directions on package; rinse and drain. Place pasta in large bowl, add all other ingredients and mix to blend. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

Note: Use any Mexican-style salsa, mild, medium or hot, as desired.

*

You've invited the boss for dinner and you're anxious to shine. You'll knock her socks off with this next recipe, an award-winning one from Sutton Place Gourmet's Tom O'Brien. Don't be daunted by the list of ingredients; many are simply seasonings and all are available at specialty markets. And the techniques are a snap.

Pacific Rim pasta salad

Serves four to six

Thai-sesame vinaigrette (recipe follows)

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