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Monday, August 18, 2008

Gourmet Italian Pasta Salad

In this dish, pasta salad, that iconic American summer food, grows up and goes gourmet. I bring in high flavor touches like sun-dried tomatoes, hot marinated artichoke hearts, and creamy Asiago cheese to create a high-taste, low fat pasta salad that is bursting with well-balanced Italian inspired flavors. This is a dish that everyone raved about, and had many of my friends eagerly asking "Where did you buy this?!" As though taste that good could come from anywhere but at home.

As the end of the summer (gasp!) approaches, I realize that reflecting back on the happiness the summer has brought me is really an exercise in looking back at all the memorable times spent with friends. Picnics in the park by the lake, BBQs with friends, lunch on the beach while playing volleyball, dinner under the stars at a concert in Chicago's Millennium Park. And more often than not, times spent with friends involves figuring out what kind of food to bring along. And often enough, in the USA at least, that calls to mind that iconic summer dish: the pasta salad.

As a life-long Midwesterner (when I'm not living in Africa that is), I've seen more than my fair share of pasta salads. And the classic Americana combination of ham, cheddar cheese, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and elbow macaroni holds a very special spot in my heart as memorabilia from childhood. But sometimes you want a more adult pasta salad, something different enough to stand out from the line-up of foods and get noticed. More than that, I wanted a full flavored pasta salad that wasn't slick and oily.

I created this pasta salad for the first time with what happened to be on hand when my husband and I were invited (with only 1 hour's notice) to join some friends for a potluck picnic and an afternoon of beach volleyball. But it was so good I wound up making it again for a friend's housewarming BBQ later that week, where it met again with rave reviews.

I'm submitting this tasty pasta dish to Presto Pasta Night, hosted this week by Got No Milk.

Gourmet Italian Pasta Salad

By the Skinny Gourmet (E. McDonnell)

Serves 15-20. (Okay to halve recipe)

1 cucumber
2-3 vine-ripe tomatoes (or equal amount of grape tomatoes)
1.5-2 Tbsp dried oregano
1/2 cup fresh basil
1 bottle Italian salad dressing (I prefer Newmann's Own or Whole Foods' 365)
2-4 Tbsp McCormick's Salad Supreme Seasoning (or other dry Italian Seasoning Mix)
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 jar (6 ounces) hot marinated artichoke hearts, including marinade
4 ounces Asiago cheese
8-10 sun-dried tomatoes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8-10 ounces (dried) pasta (such as penne, campanelle, or rotini)
optional: 1 cup diced carrots

Put a large, well salted pot of water on to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. (I prefer to cook slightly more pasta than I think I will need so I can add the pasta into the dressing mixture until I have the balance between pasta and dressing that suits me. The amount of pasta you ultimately use may also vary depending on the shape of pasta.) Set aside to cool, tossing frequently to prevent sticking.

Wash cucumber and tomatoes. Cut into approximately 1 cm dice. Set aside.

Remove artichoke hearts from marinade. Reserve marinade. Roughly chop artichoke hearts to approximately 1 cm dice.

Orient the sun-dried tomatoes like a football in front of you (so the long side is parallel to you). Cut across the sun-dried tomatoes, cutting into strips approximately 1/4 inch wide.

Cut the Asiago cheese into dice approximately 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide.

If using carrots, wash and peel carrots (or wash already peeled baby carrots) and cut into small coins. Quarter the larger carrot slices so they resemble the size of the tomato and cucumber pieces.

Pull fresh basil leaves from the stems. Cut the leaves chiffonade style (roll several of the leaves together like cigar, then cut through across the length of the cigar. When the leaves unroll, you will be left with long thin pieces of basil).

Put the tomatoes, cucumbers, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese, basil and (optional) carrots into a medium bowl and toss to combine.

Take your chosen brand of Italian dressing, which should be allowed to settle so the oil separates out into a top layer. Carefully pour off as much of the settled oil as you can. I like to reserve the oil in a spare container to use as flavorful oil for sauteing vegetables or chicken later on for other recipes. Once the oil is removed, pour approximately half a bottle of the remaining (now more concentrated) flavorful dressing into a medium bowl. Add dried oregano, salad supreme seasoning mix, balsamic vinegar, reserved hot artichoke marinade, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Toss the completely cooled pasta together with the dressing mixture until well coated. Fold in the other ingredients until well distributed. Taste and adjust seasonings to your preference. I have given a good indication of the range above in the ingredients list, but consider this as a guide. The strength of the flavor of ingredients can vary depending on their brand and how long they have been stored. Always use your own taste buds as the ultimate guide to what suits you.


kitchenetta said...

Thank you so much for your submission. This looks excellent, and yes, all grown up. I just love the combinations of flavors that you added together. Bookmarked to try in the very near future.

cookinpanda said...

A great combination of flavors and mostly things that are on hand (except the artichokes)... so this would be so easy to make. I can only imagine it getting rave reviews!

Mike of Mike's Table said...

That is a beauty of a pasta salad. It looks very fresh and attractive with that medley of veggies mixed in

Hillary said...

This came together so beautifully! Nice addition to PPN!

Jude said...

Looks so good. Gotta love the addition of artichokes -- I'm sure it'll go great with the rest of the vegetables.

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Kitchenetta: I'm glad you liked it enough to bookmark. I hope you give it a try and enjoy it!

Panda: marinated artichokes are a constant in our cupboards because I love them on pizzas, in pastas, and on salads. It is an addiction. I'm not ashamed :)

Mike: I'm always pro-veggie. Thanks for the well written compliment.

Hillary: I was glad to be able to contribute again to PPN. It is a fun and useful event, and I just havent made much pasta this summer.

Jude: the artichokes add a great touch. Truthfully for my taste, i probably could have doubled the amount of artichoke hearts (although not the marinate, that would make it too watery) and be even happier.

Nate-n-Annie said...

I like the addition of fresh basil. I think that, and the sun dried tomatoes really make this dish.

Have you tried adding diced avocados in your pasta salad?

Sherihan said...

ohhhhh the dish looks amazing, i am already drooling!! defenitly gonna try it soon.

Will said...

Fantastic! Have been eating this all week for lunch. Great on a hot, summer day.

Thought I had Asiago in the 'fridge but didn't. Substituted grated parmesan. Asiago would've been better, but the Parm worked. Also couldn't find the dry seasoning mix at the market. Subed paprika & garlic salt.

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