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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 10:36 am

Pasta salad

Tips for whipping up a toothsome, distinctive dish

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Q. Do you have a really good recipe for pasta salad? — Elizabeth
A. As a matter of fact, I do. This is my personal favorite and one that’s been a big hit with family and friends as well. In general there are two kinds of pasta salads: those tossed with a vinaigrette (i.e. vinegar-and-oil) dressing and those tossed with a mayonnaise-based dressing. A really good pasta salad depends, of course, on the flavorings and ingredients used, but a couple of other factors make the difference between a pasta salad that’s a soggy, greasy, mushy mess and one that’s toothsome and delectable — regardless of whether it’s vinaigrette- or mayonnaise-based. • Use a sturdy, firm semolina-based dry pasta. It should be bite-sized. There are many suitable varieties, including penne, fusilli (corkscrew), and shells. More delicate (i.e., thinner) shapes don’t work as well for reasons discussed below. Though commonly used in pasta salads, I don’t like farfalle (bow ties) for salads because the tie part in the middle is firmer than the thin outer edges. Pasta should always be cooked just until al dente, meaning “to the teeth” (I’ve found that this is almost always a couple minutes less than the package directions, no matter the brand), but it’s especially important when the pasta is being used in a salad. Rinse the pasta immediately in cold water to stop the cooking. • Perhaps most crucial aspect is timing. The pasta and ingredients need to be mixed with the dressing long enough to let the flavors combine but not so long that the pasta absorbs the dressing, leaving the salad too dry and the pasta limp and greasy. A half-hour to an hour is about right and two hours is probably still OK; any longer and it might be best to combine all the ingredients but the dressing ahead and add the dressing at the appropriate time.

Do you have a question about food, cooking, an ingredient, recipe, or restaurant; or something you’d like to share? Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at
The original of this recipe appears in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, a compilation of recipes from Paul Prudhomme, his siblings, and their spouses. The amount of jalapeños when combined with the other ingredients makes the salad only very slightly spicy; mild bottled jalapeños are available and will impart flavor without any heat.
1 pound shell pasta or other firm bite-sized pasta 1 cup very thinly sliced scallions, both white and green parts,       kept separate 1 cup finely chopped or slivered red, yellow, or orange      bell peppers or a combination Four to six hard-boiled eggs, chopped 1 pound cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined, halved if large,     or cooked crawfish tails or a mixture One recipe Hot Pepper Mayonnaise (see below) Freshly ground pepper, preferably white, to taste Salt to taste
Cook pasta just until al dente. Drain the pasta and run it under cold water to stop the cooking. Cool pasta to room temperature. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the green parts of the scallions and 1/4 cup of the peppers for garnish. Mix the pasta with the remaining scallions (taste the scallions; if they are very strong, you may want to reduce the amount) and peppers, then add the eggs and shrimp. Mix in enough of the ground Hot Pepper Mayonnaise to bind the ingredients (you may not need it all), then season the salad with salt and pepper and garnish it with the reserved scallion greens and peppers. This is good to serve as is, stuffed into large hollowed-out tomatoes or on a bed of lettuce. Serves four to six.

A note about homemade mayonnaise: A true mayonnaise is made with uncooked eggs. The risk of salmonella when eggs are uncooked or lightly cooked (e.g., poached or over easy) is minuscule in free-range organic eggs. A 2008 British government study confirmed that the amount of contamination was directly parallel to the size of the flocks; eggs from CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations) were five times as likely to be contaminated as free-range organic eggs. Free-range organic eggs are available at the farmers’ market and Food Fantasies. If you can’t get them or have health concerns, the bottled mayonnaise dressing makes an adequate substitute. This mayonnaise has many other uses: on sandwiches and as a base for blue-cheese dressing or dip. I almost always have some in my refrigerator.
1 1/2 tablespoons minced pickled (bottled) jalapeños and      1 1/2 tablespoons of the pickling liquid One large free-range organic egg 1/4 cup chopped scallions 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt 1 1/2 cup vegetable oil, preferably canola (do not use olive oil)
Put all ingredients except the oil in the bowl of an electric blender or food processor. Blend or process for about two minutes or until the scallions and peppers are thoroughly pureéd. With the machine still running, add the oil in a very thin stream. Store the mayonnaise in the refrigerator. Makes about 2 cups.
To make Hot-Pepper Mayonnaise with bottled mayonnaise: Mince the jalepeños and scallions as finely as possible. Mix them into 1 3/4 cups good-quality mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s (do not use salad dressing such as Miracle Whip), then stir in the sugar and pickling liquid. To allow the flavors to combine, let the mixture stand for at least half an hour before adding it to the pasta salad.
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