We've all suffered through them, those limp, soggy excuses for pasta salad that amount to little more than elbow macaroni doused with bottled vinaigrette and tossed with a bag of frozen peas.
But we can do so much better with a dish that has this much potential. All we need is a little inspiration. Pasta, after all, is a delicious blank slate. We just need to start there and layer on flavours and textures, building until we have a robust and exciting salad that deserves to be at a summer gathering.
So let's begin with the pasta. Elbow macaroni is traditional, but hardly ideal. We want something with lots of ridges, nooks and crannies. Which is to say, something with tons of surface area for trapping dressing. Go with rotini or something similar.
For inspiration, I decided to use a conventional Greek salad. And that means loading up on feta cheese, chopped Kalamata olives, chopped red onion, green bell pepper, some tomatoes and fresh oregano. For a bit of substance, I also added some garlic-butter shrimp. Tie it all together with a sour cream-spiked vinaigrette, and you have a pasta salad to be proud of.
GREEK SHRIMP AND FETA PASTA SALAD
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1 pound rotini pasta
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound raw shrimp, shells and tails removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 green bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 cup pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
Bring a large pot of salted water to a bowl. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain the pasta, then spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high, melt the butter. Add the garlic and shrimp, then saute until the shrimp are just barely firm and pink, about 4 minutes. Transfer the shrimp to the baking sheet with the pasta, spreading everything in an even layer. Place in the freezer until just cool, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, sour cream, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add the bell pepper, onion, olives, feta cheese, tomatoes and oregano. Toss until well coated. Once the shrimp and pasta are cooled, add those and gently toss until well coated by the dressing.
Nutrition information per serving: 400 calories; 150 calories from fat (38 per cent of total calories); 17 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 95 mg cholesterol; 41 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 19 g protein; 660 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org