Hands down the best. pasta. salad. ever. This is a mandatory 4th of July staple—heck, we eat it all year 'round. Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Family Style.
Pasta isn't a dirty word in our house. You can say it and eat it as many times as you want. And pasta salad? Having that in the fridge is a pass to grab a fork and nab a bite or two. I feel like pasta salad was invented in the 80's, amiright? This version isn't your typical oil and vinegar based pasta salad. This pasta salad has a dressing that is more like a sauce and performs magic when it meets the pasta.
Choosing the perfect Pasta for salad
Oh—the pasta. Have you noticed that choosing the right kind of pasta is critical when making pasta salad? You need a pasta that is going to hug the sauce. Like the cavatappi here, or rotini, fusilli, orecchiette. And the tortellini I added? So necessary. I've made this salad many times with all tortellini. And it's preferred by some members of my house to the point where this year I was greeted with a "What! Why so few tortellini?" I didn't see them missing them too much from the size of their second helping.
The well-dressed Pasta Salad
The dressing for this salad is made in the blender. As you add all the ingredients, you can't believe how it comes together and becomes this intense red color. You might worry for a sec that your salad is going to take on the same color but trust me, it incorporates nicely over the pasta. One of the secret ingredients in the dressing is the capers. Please whatever you do- don't leave out the capers. They get blended up in the dressing and the brininess and saltiness is critical to the flavor of the dressing. Speaking of the flavor, it's ok to go heavy-handed on the garlic as well. The garlic rounds everything out and works so well with the ingredients in the dish.
Primo Pasta Salad Ingredients
This pasta salad is pretty simple on the ingredient front. Two kinds of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a whole bunch of basil. The recipe calls for black olives—you can add them in. My Italian card should probably be revoked for not loving black olives. The flavor and the brininess they add to dishes is awesome, no question. More often than not, I find they get picked out of this salad, especially if you have a bunch of younger guests. Go right ahead and add them. You know your tribe!
Here are some other ingredients that I love adding to pasta salad in general and this one as well:
- foolproof chicken takes this to a main course
- chunks of salami or spicy sopressata
- the aforementioned black olives
- chunks of Italian fontinella or a sharp provolone
- drained, jarred artichokes
The Secrets to great pasta salad
- Undercook your pasta by about 2-3 minutes.
- Don't run your pasta under cold water. You might hear that you should but don't. You want that starch to grab on to the sauce.
- Add all the ingredients to the pasta before tossing with the dressing EXCEPT any Parmesan cheese and basil. Save that for the finish.
- Reserve a little sauce/dressing to the side before tossing the pasta. The pasta absorbs a lot of dressing especially if you make it ahead of time. Adding some right before serving gives it another layer of flavor and prevents it from being dryer.
For a crowd: This pasta salad is great served in small cups on a buffet. you also could skewer tortellini, tomatoes and basil and use the dressing as a dip for the skewer.
For a few: Make this pasta salad at the beginning of the week and you'll have it for lunches all week long. It's a great meal prep dish.
- Also, feel free to experiment with pastas that are made from alternative grains, veggies or are plant-based. Let me know in the comments below if you do and what your experience is!
Sun Dried Tomato Pasta Salad
- 1 lb pasta, cavatappi, rotini or fusilli - tortellini*
- 2 lbs ripe tomatoes, medium-diced
- 2 lbs fresh mozzarella, diced
- 12 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and chopped
- 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 cups basil leaves chopped, or one large container
- 10 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
- 4 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 12 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 tsp. capers, drained
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, can start with 2 teaspoon and go up from there
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- ¾ cup good black olives, OPTIONAL - drained, pitted and diced
For the salad
- Bring a large stockpot to boil. Add a healthy amount of kosher salt right before adding the pasta. If using tortellini, either cook in a separate pan or add a few minutes later so that all the pasta ends up cooking at the same time.
- Boil according to the package directions, checking it around 2 minutes before it's expected to be done.
- Drain the pasta in a colander and set aside till cool.
- Once the pasta is cool, add half of it to a large wide serving bowl along with half of the chopped tomatoes and cheese. Toss lightly and then add the remaining pasta, tomatoes and cheese.
For the dressing
- Add all the dressing ingredients to a blender and process until smooth and incorporated.
Assemble the salad
- Toss the salad with ¾ of the dressing, setting aside the remaining dressing if you're not serving it immediately.
- Add the Parmesan and basil and toss lightly. Garnish with more Parm and basil.
- If using tortellini, double the quantity. Cook according to package directions in boiling, salted water.
- Feel free to experiment with pastas that are made from alternative grains, veggies or are plant-based.
Are the olive black or kalamata
Lori Murphy says
Hi Lisa - I usually use plain black olives since the capers have a lot of extra flavor and salt but you could try kalamata as well!
Just have to tell you I'm so freakin' excited to make this. It looks incredible!!
Thank you! It's a keeper! Would love your feedback and I'm sure you'll add some awesome farmer's market twist to it!