Not surprisingly, pasta has the same affinity for salad dressings as it does for other sauces. Bathed in herb-flavored emulsions of fruity olive oil and tart vinegar, or tossed with creamy yogurt or sour cream blends, pasta absorbs some of the dressing and releases wonderful flavor with each bite. The tender chewiness of pasta contributes substance and textural contrast to a salad and holds its own against other additions like ripe olives, crunchy bits of celery and sweet pepper, chunks of spicy salami, and toasted chopped nuts.
Pasta salads are delicious warm-weather companions to grilled meats, poultry, and fish. As a main course, they make appealing light lunches or suppers when accompanied with sliced fruit and a good, crusty loaf. They are simple to put together and can be assembled just far enough in advance to marry the flavors.
Pasta for salad should always be cooked just until al dente, never a second more. Nothing is worse than pasta that is too soft or that falls apart when the salad is tossed together. Drain the pasta thoroughly as soon as it is done, then rinse to stop the cooking and prevent the pasta from sticking together. Give it a good shake in the colander to pull off any water that remains. If water clings to the pasta, the flavor of the dressing will be diluted, much as it is when mixed with salad greens that havenít been dried properly.
If the dressing calls for olive oil, use a good one. The best are extra-virgin oils, from the first pressing of the olive. These oils vary in their fruitiness and offer a spectrum of color that ranges from verdant green to a golden bronze. Purchase small amounts of several different kinds until you find one or two that please you. Experiment with vinegars as well. A wide variety are available to give your dressings excitement, from deep-toned, surprisingly sweet and mellow balsamic to red and white wine vinegars with delicate infusions of herbs or fruit.
Cook the pasta in 3 quarts of rapidly boiling water until it is al dente. Immediately drain off the cooking water. Rinse under cold running water to separate the pasta; drain again thoroughly.
Making Salad Dressing
Place all ingredients in a glass jar with a lid. Secure the lid and shake vigorously until the ingredients are combined into an emulsion.
Place all the salad ingredients in a wide, shallow serving bowl. Pour the dressing over the pasta mixture. With a large spoon and fork or two spoons, toss gently to coat all the ingredients with dressing.