Secret Ingredient Pasta Salad with Jammy Tomatoes
what's the secret ingredient and why is it sun-dried tomatoes?
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Originally published in 2020, I find myself making this pasta salad more than any other pasta salad, and thus, decided it was deserving of the Home Movies treatment. I tweak it from time to time— adding capers or not, using sungolds instead of red tomatoes, shallot instead of onion, fancy vinegar when I have it, cheese or no cheese— but at it’s core it remains a bowl of tangy, vibrant pasta salad with multiple tomato textures and a unified tomato-y front, deeply marinated rather than simply dressed.
As the “start of summer” is upon us this very weekend, I know you’ll be asked to make or bring at least one side dish to a soiree you’re hosting or attending and I promise you, everyone will be so pleased if it’s this one.
Hear me now: This is a pasta salad, not a salad with pasta (this one here is more of a salad made with pasta and I DO recommend it). As annoying as it is to repeat, I feel the need to beat the drum every time I say the words “pasta” and “salad” together just to manage expectations because I’ve done them several different ways (all wonderful, if you ask me!). This one is admittedly more a classic pasta salad, but less “antipasto platter in a bowl,” more refined, elegant, sultry and saucy. There will be no rings of canned black olives and penne is not invited. I do not believe in tri-color pasta, but do encourage the use of bowties, they make me so happy.
While some treat pasta salads as receptacles for our odds and ends (there’s a time and place, sure, I guess), this is not that. It is a considered pasta salad with only a few ingredients that really pull their weight and then some: Quickly cooked tomatoes become juicy and jammy, giving us that give us a sauce for which to coat the noodles, vinegar-marinated (not quite pickled) red onion for crunchy texture, savory acidity and punchy raw onion flavor (a hallmark of a good pasta salad), a discreet amount of capers for brininess (I am flexible on these), optional crumbled little hunks of salty parmesan or pecorino, and, of course, a secret. A gorgeous, sun-dried little secret (it’s sun-dried tomatoes: not a very good secret, I’ve been told).
When used responsibly and in conjunction with a smattering of just-cooked, juicy fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes give chewy-in-a-good way texture, sweetness, and just a little beguiling something that makes you wonder why this pasta salad is simply above average. They don’t dominate, but they do make themselves known— exactly how I like my secret ingredients to behave.
The Venn diagram overlap of people who will complain that this isn’t a pasta salad because I’m cooking some of the ingredients and who will actually read this newsletter is very narrow, but just in case:
You have to cook the pasta, too. So like…who cares.
The pasta salad tastes better when you cook the tomatoes. Even a bad tomato is made better when briefly cooked. See also #1.
PASTA: served hot/warm. pasta cooked to al dente to finish cooking in a sauce in a pot or skillet. should be saucy. is mostly pasta. should be eaten almost immediately. is dinner/main course.
PASTA SALAD: served cold/room temperature. pasta cooked till it’s done (past al dente, perhaps). hot pasta dressed in punchy/acidic sauce, tossed in bowl. never too saucy. high ratio of pasta:other ingredients. best eaten after letting it sit for an hour or so, excellent chilled or room temperature, still perfect days later. is side dish, supporting cast member, star of a potluck/picnic/bbq/summer stage.
For those who simply can’t bear to cook an ingredient for their pasta salad, here, I made you this one.
Secret Ingredient Pasta Salad with Jammy Tomatoes
This pasta salad is very good, kind of has a “cold Amatriciana” feel to it, which, if you’ve ever eaten cold, leftover Amatriciana, you know is a very good thing. (Amatriciana is a classic Roman-as-in-Rome pasta, made with cured pork, tomato, sometimes onion and pecorino.) You can eat it immediately, but it’s truly better after a few hours, either cold or at room temp, a textbook example of a great “eat directly out of a container” food. As always, she is flexible –skip the capers if you like, make it spicy or not, go cheese-less if you dare, use shallots instead of red onion– but resist the urge to throw everything under the sun into this pasta salad. This salad should be composed, elegant and focused, tasting of jammy tomatoes, summertime and secrets (sun-dried tomatoes).
1 pound of pasta, I like a short tube shape, like campanelle, radiatori, or rigatoni
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 cup olive oil, plus more
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Crushed chili flake, a dab of harissa paste, your favorite hot sauce, anything spicy
1-2 pounds any type of tomatoes (I like the smaller ones on the vine), quartered
½ to 1 cup sun-dried tomatoes (!), chopped, sliced, whatever*
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1⁄2 red onion, sliced (not too thin)
2 tablespoons capers, optional
2-4 ounces roughly chopped pecorino or parmesan cheese, optional
*I like using sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (the oil is delicious and can be used to cook with), but the dry sun-dried tomatoes also work– no need to re-plump or rehydrate them before using, they’ll do their thing in the skillet.
1. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water; drain and set aside (if you’re worried, drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent noodles from sticking- but pasta should still be warm when you dress it so don’t do this too far in advance).
2. Meanwhile, combine onion and vinegar in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper and set aside (they are marinating rather than pickling, fwiw).
3. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, swirling the skillet occasionally, until the garlic is tender and just starting to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add your spicy something of choice, add the fresh and sun-dried (!) tomatoes, capers, and season with salt and pepper.
4. Cook, tossing occasionally until the fresh tomatoes are just burst and juicy (you can use a spatula or wooden spoon to encourage them to break down if they started out especially firm), 5 to 8 minutes.
5. Combine pasta and tomato mixture in a large bowl. Add your marinated onions, drizzle with a bit more olive oil and season again with salt, pepper and more of your spicy something if you like. Toss, toss, toss until every piece of pasta is evenly coated. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and toss it again. Think of it as marinated pasta, knowing that the flavor will change a bit as it sits.
6. You can eat it immediately, but it’s truly better after a few hours, cold or at room temp. This is perfect “eat out of a container” food at the beach, on the grass, wherever. Top with lots of cheese before eating and drink with something cold and effervescent.
DO AHEAD: The pasta salad can be made and refrigerated for up to 5 days.
EAT WITH: Spicy sausages, hot dogs and mustard, celery sticks dipped in ranch, beer on ice, cold red wine.
Sun-dried tomatoes– I’m pretty brand agnostic and have had many great sun-dried tomatoes over the years, but these by Cento are easy to find and I like that they’re stored in oil (to keep them plump), because you can also cook with the oil.
The shirt is by Acne and I can’t find it online anymore, but this one is so cute?
Sfoglini has no shortage of fun, short, pasta salad friendly shapes (I used campanelle in the video but often choose rigatoni)
it’s like she heard me disparaging sun dried tomatoes literally ten minutes before this was posted…
I know I will love this as this is how I make pizza: cook down cherry/grape tomatoes with garlic slivers, Calabrian chiles, olive oil, and salt, maybe anchovies, Then top with burrata and small fresh basil leaves. Next time will add the sun-dried tomatoes.