Last year I admitted to you all that I am no fan of pasta salads. The gloppy, the soggy, the mayonnaise-laden bowls of unappetizing sadness. Man, I’m really coming down hard on pasta salad, aren’t I? It’s almost as though I have forgotten how there are good pasta salads out there, but, sadly, not enough people seem to know about them. I am to change that, which is why I come to you today, armed with this utterly tasty and crisp, fresh and flavorful pasta salad.
Found long ago on Epicurious, I’ve been making a version of this pasta salad for a few years now. Though I don’t follow the ingredient list to the letter, one element of the salad that remains unchanged is the dressing. With a perfect balance of flavors, this is a pasta salad dressing to keep on file for the duration of your life, and preferably the lives of your offspring as well. Never again shall you be steered towards the unsavory land of bland, droopy pasta salad dressings, for this dressing will make you demand a change for the better.
It’s not dressing alone that makes this dish a stand out, however. Folded together with piles of fresh, crisp vegetables, the measure of pasta to not-pasta is spot on. The original recipe called for tomatoes and thinly sliced fennel to adorn the salad, but I love adding in whatever I have on hand to make the flavors and textures a bit different each time. Sometimes I throw in roughly chopped spinach leaves, thinly sliced ribs of red and yellow bell pepper, or a couple of cups of baby arugula. One thing I never leave out, however, is the fennel. It’s a must-have in this dish, adding a crunch and flavor that is impossible to replicate with anything else. Add this pasta salad to your summer repertoire, and I think you’ll agree.
Fennel and Tomato Pasta Salad with Balsamic Dressing
Adapted from Epicurious
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 medium garlic cloves, finely minced
3 cups diced, seeded plum tomatoes
2 cups thinly sliced fresh fennel (from about 1 large bulb)
1 cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
6 green onions, white part only, chopped
½ cup coarsely chopped Kalamata olives
juice from 1 large lemon
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pasta (penne or farfalle work well here)
optional: Instead of 3 cups of tomatoes, use 1 cup of tomatoes, 1 cup of sliced bell peppers, and 2 cups of chopped spinach leaves
also optional: ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
Whisk olive oil, tomato paste, vinegar, and garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Combine tomatoes (if you’re using a combination of vegetables here, leave out the spinach leaves until you toss everything together with the pasta right before serving), fennel, basil, parsley, green onions, and olives in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss to combine, and allow vegetable mixture to stand at least 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours, tossing occasionally.
Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, then toss and set aside to cool a bit. Toss every few minutes to keep pasta from sticking together, and to help it cool.
When cooled, transfer pasta to a large bowl. Squeeze over lemon juice, and toss to combine. Pour dressing over the pasta, and toss to combine. Add vegetable mixture, and toss once more. If using, toss in crumbled feta. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if desired.