Pasta for Every Palate
A pasta salad is only as good as the noodles that hold it all together. Have fun with different pasta shapes-short or long, narrow or wide, solid or hollow, big or small, flat or stuffed ... you can put a brand new face on the same salad simply by varying the pasta. Pasta is made from many different types of flour, and colored beautifully with many different vegetables, so be adventurous and try something out of the ordinary-from rainbow radiatore, spinach ravioli, and whole wheat fettuccine, to corn macaroni, buckwheat soba noodles, and rice vermicelli. There's no way to get bored with pasta when the choices are so deliciously endless.
It's even more important with pasta salad than with hot pasta dishes that you avoid overcooking the pasta. Overcooked pasta will fall apart when you try to toss it with dressing. Not only that, but if you allow your salad to "marinate" for several hours to let the flavors mingle, the pasta will soak up the moisture from the dressing and the other ingredients, turning slightly overcooked pasta to absolute mush. Cook the pasta just until it becomes tender, pour it into a colander in the sink, then run cold water over it to stop the cooking and cool it down quickly. As soon as the pasta feels cool to the touch, shake the colander to drain off as much water as possible. Now dump the pasta into a bowl and toss it with some oil to keep it from sticking together.
A Little of This, a Little of That...
Because pasta itself is so versatile and mild in flavor, just about everything tastes good with it. Use ingredients that will give your pasta salad lots of varied taste and texture: cook vegetables just until tender, then plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking before they get mushy (this is called "refreshing" or "shocking" your vegetables), or just leave the vegetables crisp and raw. Other things to add gusto are toasted nuts, dried fruit, fresh herbs, crumbled cheese, and tidbits of your favorite meat.
Dress for the Occasion
To save a little time, you can always use bottled salad dressing to toss with your pasta salad, but if you're in a "from scratch" kind of mood, the possibilities are positively tantalizing. A mixture of oil and vinegar is arguably the most popular way to dress a pasta salad, but you can also make creamy dressing with mayonnaise, sour cream, or yogurt.
For sautéing, it's fine to use vegetable oil, but for salad dressing, use high-quality, flavorful oils. Extra-virgin olive oil, toasted sesame oil, hazelnut oil, and walnut oil are all power-players in the world of taste, and you can get by with using much less oil while still adding superior flavor if you choose a bold one. To add that all-important zing to the dressing, try cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, raspberry vinegar, or even lime or lemon juice. Whatever you use as the basis of your dressing, be sure to round it out with salt and pepper, and perhaps a dash of red pepper flakes, a little bit of crushed garlic, a dab of mustard, or anything else you think will make your pasta salad distinctly divine.