I'm not a huge fan of eating outdoors, but I am always up for making anything into an event if it includes sharing food with others. Therefore, I eat it, so to speak, when invited to a picnic or BBQ or outdoor potluck. Then I spend days obsessing about what to bring and run a million ideas through my head, mentally balancing my budget with the amount of time and effort I'm willing to put into that specific gathering at that specific time.
I usually settle for pasta salad. I say "settle" because it always seems like a cheap copout to me. I think of how many times I've peered closely (and hopefully discreetly) at the unidentifiable "bits" and sauces that make up someone else's potluck bowl of pasta salad and skip it for something more easy to recognize as food. I think also of all the wonderful foods I know about and enjoy putting into a meal and how I don't want to "insult" great ingredients by tossing them into something that might be unidentifiable to some other discriminating potluck guest.
So, how do I end up reconciling all the factors in this no doubt completely unnecessary overanalyzing? I make pasta salad anyway, but I try to do it with respect for ingredients, other event attendees and my own finances. I use the great ingredients and flavors I love, but I honor them by making sure the "bits" in my pasta salads are identifiable-big enough in size and not masked by some ooky, opaque sauce. And, for my budget, because a pasta salad is made primarily of pasta (read affordable) I can use some special ingredients, but I do so in smaller amounts than would be necessary in another type of dish.
I have two favorite pasta salads right now. The first one is Cool California Sesame Shiitake Noodles
, which I came up with last year and is always a hit, especially with vegans and vegetarians looking for a worthwhile entrée at gatherings. This year I started making it with whole wheat spaghetti noodles instead of capellini and it is just as good and even more satisfying for those not eating heavier meat dishes. Sometimes I make it without the edamame, too. It really doesn't need it.
The other favorite is a pasta salad I more often make at home on a Sunday for supper with the purely selfish motivation of having plenty to take for lunch Monday and Tuesday. It is a Shrimp & Feta Pasta Salad. I make it with whole wheat rotini pasta, halved cherry tomatoes, halved boiled shrimp, seeded cucumber pieces, a generous amount of crumbled feta cheese, very finely chopped celery and red onion, lots of chopped fresh basil or cilantro or dried dill, black pepper and a little vinegar. Sometimes I use a little canola mayo or olive oil, but not always. And sometimes I add garbanzo beans.
A sidebar on whole wheat pasta. A lot of people don't like it-or think they don't-but when you're trying hard to get more healthy food for your buck, it's worth figuring out how to make it work for you... or "them." For one, if you haven't tried it in a long time, know that the texture seems to have improved-lightened up somehow-in the past few years. The other thing I've discovered is that tomato sauce seems to bring out the most common unlikable qualities (sweetness and graininess), so I just don't go there. In my house I use it only for non-tomato-sauce dishes to make sure it gets eaten.
I'm thinking it's about time to come up with another favorite. I do love harissa and minced black olives in couscous, so that might be where I start. If you've got some ideas, bring 'em on and share them here. Maybe 2009 will be the summer we all remember as the year that the quality of pasta salads at picnics, potlucks and BBQs improved!
Regardless of whether you're as ridiculously nitpicky about pasta salad as I am, here are more tasty pasta salad recipes
to help you through the summer.