Pesto is a thick paste of Italian origin used in a wide range of pasta dishes. A typical pesto contains fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, though these ingredients can vary. A cold pesto pasta salad is a refreshing addition to any summer lunch menu and can be made ahead of time. Adding salmon, chicken, slivered beef or a handful of crisp, steamed vegetables to cold pesto pasta makes it hearty enough for cool-weather meals as well.
To make a cold pesto salad, first prepare your pesto. Mince the garlic and herbs as finely as possible, then blend your ingredients together by mashing them up in a large bowl or by using a food processor. Using a food processor will give you a finer, less chunky pesto. Boil pasta according to the package instructions until softened. Any pasta shape will do, although short pastas like penne and fusilli are most common in pesto salads. Strain the pasta and blend it with the pesto until evenly distributed. Place the pasta in a large bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
Pasta Salad Variations
Cold pesto pasta serves as the base for a wide range of colorful salads that can be served as side dishes or light main courses. Cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, grated Parmesan, prosciutto, shrimp, chicken, olives, capers and other ingredients can be added to the pasta to create zesty Mediterranean flavors. Pesto itself also has many variations that usually involve replacing the basil with another green vegetable or herb such as spinach, parsley, mint, tarragon, arugula or cilantro. Non-green vegetables, such as roasted red pepper, beets, corn or carrots, can also be used.
Advantages of Cold Pesto Pasta Salad
Serving pesto pasta salad cold has a number of advantages. It can be made up to a few days in advance if properly stored in the refrigerator. This gives you a lot of flexibility when planning your menu and means you can literally take it out of the refrigerator and serve it immediately. You don’t need to worry about timing as you would with a hot dish. If guests arrive late, for example, you won’t have to worry about the dish getting cold. A cold dish is also easier to transport if you’re eating on the go.
Serving Cold Pesto Salad
When serving cold pesto, consider placing it in a large transparent bowl on the table. This will allow you to show off the attractive colors of your pesto, particularly if you add red, white, pink and other colored ingredients. A cold pesto salad goes well with fresh bread and panini sandwiches, although it can be served just as well on its own. Make sure to taste the dish before serving and add salt or fresh ground pepper if needed.
Let refrigerated pesto sit for twenty minutes or so at room temperature before tossing it with your pasta to let the congealed olive oil revert to its silky liquid form.