Almost every year, I attempt to set off the summer with a pasta salad that aspires to be everything the underseasoned, swmming-in-mayo pasta salads many of us grew up dreading were not. That is, unsoggy pasta that still has a bite to it, dressings with crunch and acidity, and vegetables that are there for substance, not just flecks of color. But this is the first year I did it by public polling, and by public I mean, my husband keeps reminding me how much he likes roasted carrots, Sara, who helps out behind the scenes here, reminded me how much she likes the roasted carrots at the Dig Inn chain, and many of you have told me over the years about nut allergies and nut-free schools and workplaces, which means it’s high time to give sunflower seeds their time in the spotlight. (Besides, I’d choose sunflower seed butter over almond or cashew butter any day, wouldn’t you?)
Look, I don’t know anything about dating or making fashion choices by algorithm, but I think the results of this new-recipe-by-polling were exceptional. Carrots are out at the markets right now, but have also come a long way at the grocery store, where I bought these rainbow pretties, although monochrome carrots work too. While they’re in the oven for a quick, high-heat blast, you grind sunflowers (but not all the way, no powder here) with garlic, parmesan (if you wish), lemon zest, and some carrot greens, and if yours came without, a few kale leaves. The green is important here (and I should have used more) because the natural color of sunflower seeds is a bit gray/beige, not exactly the summery brightness one hopes “sunflower” would impart. You then stir in olive oil, lemon juice, more salt, and pepper, more than you think you’ll need because carrots are sweet, pasta is neutral, and you’re going to want the seasoning to stretch across all of it.
And that’s it, you just wrapped up lunch, or dinner, or picnic/potluck/whatever else the end of the school year requires of you fairly quickly and with a dish that is meant to be room temperature, perfect for people whose meals usually are anyway by the time we get to them, and who dream of leftovers for lunch the next day that don’t require a trip to the sketchy breakroom microwave. We should definitely do this more often.
Pasta Salads, previously:
Pasta Salad with Roasted Carrots and Sunflower Seed Dressing
- 2 bunches thin carrots with green tops (these weigh 24 ounces total without greens)
- 2 tablespoons olive or grapeseed oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 pound (225 grams) dried pasta, here I use a small penne rigate, a gemelli, casarecce, or strozzapreti will be great here too)
- 2/3 cup (90 grams) roasted, shelled, sunflower seeds, unsalted
- A handful greens, washed, from carrot tops or a few leaves of kale, plus more for garnish
- 3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese (optional)
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled
- A few fine gratings of fresh lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
- Several grinds of black pepper
- 1/3 cup olive oil, plus more if needed
- Juice of half a lemon, plus more to taste
Carrots and assembly
Meanwhile, cook pasta: Bring a medium/large pot full of well-salted water to a boil and cook pasta for 1 to 2 minutes shy of package suggestion, until it is tender but still has a bite to it. Drain and cool in large bowl until needed.
Make dressing: In a food processor or strong blender, place sunflower seeds, greens, parmesan (if using), garlic, lemon zest, salt, pepper flakes, and black pepper in work bowl and pulse until chopped small but not finely ground. (You want this mixture to retain crunch.) Transfer to a bowl and stir in olive oil and lemon juice. You want this to be more aggressively seasoned than seems necessary; it has a lot of pasta and vegetables to wake up.
Assemble: Halve thinner carrots and quarter thicker carrots lengthwise, and then cut into 1 to 1.5″ segments, or whatever the length of the past you’re using is. Place in bowl with pasta. If dressing seems too thick, add a tablespoon of water (and up to 2) to loosen it and stir it into pasta and carrots. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed with more salt, pepper or pepper flakes, or lemon. Chop some extra carrot greens or kale for garnish. Eat now or later.
Do ahead: Salad keeps for 3 to 4 days in fridge. You’ll probably find that the pasta has “drank” the dressing and will want to toss it with a bit more lemon juice, oil, salt, and or pepper when you eat it again to revive it.