For someone who is patently terrified of all the offerings in the deli case pasta salad universe — the tri-colore, mayo-slicked, sugar-sweetened, canned tuna-flecked, curry powder-ed, and dotted with green peppers, raisins or ohgodboth — I sure spend a spectacular amount of each summer trying to come up with cold pasta preparations I’d find agreeable. I know that there’s one out there I could love and could love me back, but although a few attempts have gotten me closer, and even temporarily sated, my perfect picnic pasta salad eluded me.
Late last summer, I began forming an idea of how to make this, a pasta salad that would be loud, punchy and full of texture where others are mellow and limp. My notes are adamant about a well-toasted crunch, such as pine nuts, a good salty crumbled cheese, like ricotta salata or feta, chopped black olives, such as those oil-cured ones I was slowly developing an affection for, and pasta taken off the stove when it’s an aggressive al dente, even two minutes before tender “doneness” instead of one, so that no matter how long it soaks in dressing, it does not collapse. But I got stuck on the last ingredient, because what I really wanted in there was not those “sun-dried” tomatoes you find in dry-packs and jars, but these wondrously slow-baked oven tomatoes, all chewy, tart and intense.
Alas, I knew they’d be a deal-breaker because they take hours to dry out in the oven, and that’s just the tiny ones. Nobody is going to spend hours preparing the single ingredient of a pasta salad. Nobody. I get it. But I did, and I regret nothing. In my defense, I cooked them in less than half the time by bumping up the temperature and keeping them a little juicier than the classic, but not compromising any tomato intensity. A handful of fresh chopped basil and a gentler version of this oregano vinaigrette we fell in love with last year (my husband’s brilliant suggestion for this) make this everything those pasta salads of my nightmares are not — fresh and bright, balanced and light — and the only thing I want to eat on all of the summer days ahead.
One year ago: Carrot Salad with Tahini and Crisped Chickpeas
Two years ago: Two Classic Sangrias
Three years ago: Tzatziki Potato Salad
Four years ago: Strawberry Summer Cake
Five years ago: Scrambled Egg Toast
Six years ago: Slaw Tartare
Seven years ago: 30 Ways To Be A Good Guest
Eight years ago: Coconut Pinkcherry Yogurt
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Cranberry Pie with Thick Pecan Crumble
1.5 Years Ago: Cauliflower with Brown Butter Crumbs
2.5 Years Ago: Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Biscuits
3.5 Years Ago: Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
Pasta Salad with Roasted Tomatoes
As with most pasta salads, the ingredients here are flexible. I’ve outlined what I used, but should you not be into olives, or salty cheese, or pine nuts, no reason not to skip them or swap them with something you like better. Yes, you’ll need 90 minutes for the tomatoes, but I promise, you will not regret the time you waited for them, because this long, low roasting time turns even grocery store grape tomatoes into something intense, tart and magical, and the ones from your garden into their highest calling. You can make them the day before, too, or make double what you need, planning ahead for future pasta salads. They keep well in the fridge up to five days, drizzled with additional olive oil. For the pasta, promise that you’ll only cook it to 1 to 2 minutes before full doneness. Mine had quite an al dente bite, harder than I’d want it in a hot dish when I drained it, but held up beautifully even after it soaked up the dressing for a couple hours. Limp pasta makes me sad.
4 cups (about 680 grams) grape tomatoes
1 big clove or 2 small cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano (if you can find it, Sicilian is my favorite)
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1 pound (455 grams) dried pasta, a bite-sized shape of your choosing (I used reginetti), cooked until 1 to 2 minutes before doneness and drained
6 ounces (170 grams) crumbled salty cheese, such as ricotta salata, feta, queso fresco
1/2 cup (70 grams) pine nuts, well-toasted and cooled
1/2 cup (70 grams) pitted and rough-chopped olives of your choice (I used gaeta here, but like them even more when oil-cured)
Salt and pepper
Handful fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
Roast tomatoes: Heat oven to 300°F (150°C). Cover 1 to 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Cut each small tomato in half lengthwise and arrange cut side up in a single layer on prepared sheets. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake in oven for approximately 90 minutes, until somewhat shriveled and dry to the touch, but not fully dehydrated. Set aside until needed, letting them cool. [Note, if you pine nuts are not yet toasted, you can place them in the oven for the last 10 minutes, shaking them once or twice for even coloring. Let cool as well before using.]
Make dressing: Roughly chop the garlic on a cutting board, then add oregano, salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Mince the mixture with your knife until it’s a grainy herb paste. Transfer to a small bowl, whisk in lemon juice and vinegar, then slowly drizzle in oil, whisking the whole time. Taste and adjust as needed; you might need more salt or vinegar. You want a strongly flavored dressing that won’t get lost in that big bowl of ingredients.
Assemble salad: In a giant bowl, place drained pasta, roasted tomatoes, cheese, pine nuts and olives and toss gently to combine. Add dressing to taste, along with any extra salt and pepper needed. Finish with basil. Salad can be eaten right away, but will keep in the fridge up to 3 days. This is also perfect for picnics and potlucks, as it can handle being out in the sun without going south.