Friday, July 3, 2015

Ultimate Pasta Salad

I love pasta salads. I love pasta in general, but pasta salads are a real summertime favorite of mine. I have been making variations on this same pasta salad for many years and it is very popular with friends and family (or strangers, for that matter) at cookouts and the like.

Disclaimer: I love vinegar. This is a fairly vinegary pasta salad so if you are not into the whole vinegar thing, just cut back on the vinegar or simply look elsewhere for a recipe more suited to your tastes.

Shopping list (stuff you won't have around the house, I promise):
Hard Salami (Genoa Salami is fine) - you have to buy it at the deli counter, ask them for four slices about 1/4" thick. This usually ends up weighing about 1/3 of a pound.

Provolone Cheese (bonus points if your deli has sharp provolone) - get a slice about 1" thick, usually about 1/2 pound. Alternately, get four slices the same thickness as the salami.

Other ingredients:
2 boxes (12oz) rainbow rotini
 - I don't much care for "wacky mac" but if it's all you can find it will suffice.
1 green bell pepper
1/2 red onion
3-4 cloves fresh garlic
1 lemon
1 can (6oz) black olives - I prefer medium
Tomatoes (I buy grape tomatoes and leave them whole - more on that later)
1 C each red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil
Salt (Jacobsen Salt Co. Kosher Sea Salt is a personal favorite)
Pepper (freshly ground, please)
[optional] Crushed red pepper

Fill a large pot with enough water to cook all of the pasta at once. Add a generous pinch of salt and a generous pour of oil. You don't want these noodles sticking together and aren't worried about saucing them. Put the pot on a large burner set to high.

While the water heats up, cut the salami into tiny cubes. 1/4" or smaller. You can do the same with the cheese or grate it with a coarse grater. For years I always cut the provolone into cubes but lately have been going with grated and I think I prefer the grated version.

Cut up the bell pepper and onion, using a coarse chop so the pieces are similar to the salami or a bit smaller. I usually chop the onion more finely than the bell pepper.

Chop the garlic finely.

By this time, the water will have come to a boil and you'll have already added the pasta.

COOK THE PASTA VERY AL DENTE. Probably 2 minutes shorter than the shortest cooking time on the package. Drain and rinse with cold water, tossing with your hands to make sure that all of the noodles are cooled. Leave the colander to drain.

Open the can of olives. Drain the can over the noodles. Cut the olives in half lengthwise. If you're in a hurry, a can of sliced olives won't cause a riot.

The tomatoes - I buy the smallest tomatoes I can and leave them whole. If you buy cherry tomatoes and cut them into halves or quarters, nobody will complain. If you want to chop or slice Roma tomatoes, go for it.

Get out a giant bowl. The biggest bowl you've got. Put the noodles into the bowl, followed by everything else except the liquids and spices. Mix well with a wooden spoon or similar. Or use your (clean) hands if you'd prefer.

Add the vinegar first. Mix. Add the oil. Mix. Sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and oregano. Add a very modest sprinkle of crushed red pepper if you're into that sort of thing. Mix well.

Juice your lemon, remove seeds, add lemon juice to bowl and mix one last time.

This pasta salad is best made a day in advance. It may seem too wet at first but give it overnight in the refrigerator and it will be fine.

Presentation considerations:
If you'd prefer to top the salad with your tomatoes, just hold them out until just before you serve then top the salad with the tomatoes. You can do the same thing with the olives.

A small number of green olives can go nicely as well, though they seem much more likely to offend some palates.

Don't be tempted to substitute mozzarella for provolone. Mozzarella is a wonderful cheese but lacks the pungency to keep up with the salami and vinegar in this application.

Any pasta will work, but rotini holds the dressing nicely. In any case, the medium rare cook is important. Pasta that's even close to fully cooked will not hold up very well.