Summer and picnics go hand in hand—like Abbot and Costello, Lucy and Ethel, Eddy and Patsy… Of course no picnic is complete without pasta salad. You know the one; tri-color rotini, sliced bell peppers, black olives, and Italian dressing. Nestled in between the macaroni salad and Aunt Jaynee’s potato salad (are you noticing a theme here?)—It’s summer iconography.
However great that tri-color staple can be—if I’m being honest, I could probably eat enough for an entire family picnic on my own—I think we can all stand to benefit from broadening the offerings of our gingham-clad summer tables. I think that often times these concoctions are treated more like a salad and less like pasta, leaving you with a total lack of balance. They can be too biting and acidic from bottled dressings, and the contrast between soft pasta and crunchy raw vegetables can be just as jarring as the puckering dressing. My inspiration when it came time to mess with this classic came from the pasta motherland: Italy. I know, I know… some might argue that Italians don’t do pasta salad, or even cold pasta, but once you start messing with one tradition what’s there to stop you from doing it with another? Besides, who knows pasta better?
I think what makes this pasta salad work so well is that it would be just as good served hot as it is cooled down; this is, in part, because of the “sauce”. It’s tomato-based, though not quite a tomato sauce (which wouldn’t be very good cold), and it uses a good amount of extra virgin olive oil with a splash of vinegar, without verging on vinaigrette territory, which would be too puckering and acidic in its usual proportions.
Essentially, tomato paste is cooked gently before a little white balsamic vinegar is added, and extra virgin olive oil—the dark green elixir—is whisked in. I favor white balsamic here over the usual dark variety for it’s light, spritely fruitiness—a nod to the Arrabbiata from Palio Restaurant in Ann Arbor, where they add dark balsamic to the angry tomato sauce. I love Botticelli’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil for its robust flavor; fruity, peppery, and aromatic. They also make a full line of pasta (I used their penne rigate here), Italian vinegars, and jarred sauces (which are completely natural—nothing that you wouldn’t put in a homemade sauce yourself. Look for a recipe coming up featuring their alla vodka sauce. So good!).
Calabria, the southern sunbaked “toe” of Italy, served as inspiration for the flavors. It all started by sprinkling in some crushed dried chilies that hail from Calabria, which I buy in bulk; their heat almost contrasts the cooled pasta, and by using such a regional ingredient it almost makes the dish feel authentic. From there soppressata was added for its fatty, porky flavor. Being that the region also prides itself on its food preservation I add in sundried tomatoes, which help to intensify the tomato flavor. Speaking of intensifying tomatoes, you won’t see any raw ones here; I quickly sear halved cherry or grape tomatoes in a screaming hot pan until they just start to blister to deepen their flavor and natural sweetness, serving as a still slightly fresh foil to their dried counterparts. A fistful each of basil and parsley from the garden and you have the essence of summer.
I think this Calabrian Pasta Salad is best served at room temperature, though cold, or even hot, it’s still good. In fact, I think there’s a certain virtue that comes with the territory of pasta salad, where picking at a few nibbles of it straight from the fridge brings you the utmost of hedonistic pleasure. Whether or not the people of Calabria would embrace it with open arms is yet to be seen, but nevertheless I think they would appreciate the effort.
Break out the gingham cloth, and set this on your table—you won’t regret it.
Servings: 4 as a meal, 6 - 8 as a side
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- 12 ounces penne rigate
- 3 tablespoons olive oil (regular), divided (Botticelli recommended)
- 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Botticelli recommended)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 - 3 cloves garlic sliced
- 1 small red chili such as cayenne or fresno, minced (or 1 dried peperoncino chili, ground or minced)
- About 1 pound cherry tomatoes halved
- 1 ounce sundried tomatoes oil-packed, finely diced
- 6 ounces mozzarella perlini halved
- 1 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano finely grated
- 3 - 4 ounces sopressata pre-sliced, cut into 1/4" x 1/2" strips
- 1/4 cup fresh minced parsley
- About 12 leaves basil torn in half
- 1 t-spoon kosher salt plus A LOT more for the pasta water
- Small pinch sugar as needed depending on tomatoes
- Bring a large, covered pot of water to a rolling boil. Once boiling, heavily salt the water, and drop in the pasta and cook to the package instructions for being fully cooked—not al dente.
- Once it’s cooked, reserve some of the pasta water (about a cup, just in case) and drain the pasta. Against my cardinal rule of never doing this, rinse the pasta with cold water and shake off any excess. Set aside.
- Heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat until screaming hot. Toss about half of the regular olive oil with the halved cherry tomatoes and tumble them into the hot pan.
- Cook for just about 2 – 3 minutes, until they start to pop and blister a bit. Transfer it to a separate dish and set aside.
- Pull the pan off the heat and let it cool a bit and, once it has, stir in the remaining regular olive oil, sliced garlic, minced chili of choice and tomato paste. Put back over medium-low heat and cook until fragrant—about 3 – 5 minutes, making sure nothing burns or sticks.
- Once the garlic has begun to soften, turn up the heat for a minute and then pour in the vinegar, immediately followed by about 2/3 cup of the pasta water. Stir to combine, letting it come together in a thick, brick red sauce. Whisk in the extra virgin olive oil, shut off the heat, and set aside to cool completely.
- Once the “sauce” is cooled, fold in the pasta, blistered tomatoes, halved mozzarella, Parmigiano, sopressata, and parsley.
- You can either toss in the basil leaves and serve immediately, or stash in the fridge to serve later—just be sure to let the pasta salad come to room temperature for at least an hour before serving.
Source: I Ate The Whole Thing