Heather is happiest when taking a beautiful photo, creating something in her kitchen, or elbows-deep in a DIY project.
Pasta Salad With Italian Dressing
Growing up, I didn't quite care for cold pasta salad with Italian dressing. I think it might have been the olives that turned me off. However, sometime during my college years, I had such a love affair with Italian pasta salad. I was working part-time at a popular bakery chain, and their cold pasta salads were to die for (they still are).
Long after I graduated college and no longer worked at the bakery, I would crave cold Italian pasta salad. I tried replicating the salad at home and came pretty close to perfection. My husband doesn't like black olives OR tomatoes, so over the years, my cold pasta salad recipes have definitely evolved.
A Year-Round Favorite Recipe
To create this recipe, I use pasta and fresh vegetables that we both love, as well as our favorite mayonnaise and Italian salad dressing. This recipe is such a staple in my home and has been a lifesaver time and time again. The ingredients are easy to come by and always in my kitchen. I also love to prepare things a day ahead when possible—especially this recipe because it tastes the best when chilled overnight.
This dish couldn't get any easier or more delicious. I make this dish all year long, but it truly hits the spot during the hot summer months. While my mom's classic tuna fish and elbow macaroni salad are one of my all-time favorite comfort foods, this pasta salad definitely makes it to the list as well.
What Kind of Pasta Should I Use?
Most Italian pasta salads are prepared using tri-color rotini pasta. I like to use whatever pasta I have on hand. Oftentimes, I enjoy mixing two different kinds of pasta together to give my finished dish more variety in both appearance and taste.
One of my favorite kinds of pasta is farfalle pasta. Farfalle, pronounced far-FALL-lay, means "Butterfly" in Italian. It is also commonly called "bow-tie pasta." I always use the Barilla brand of farfalle (Barilla number 65), and I also love to use mini farfalle (Barilla number 364) in soup recipes.
Zucchini and Spinach Rotini
For this recipe, I mixed two Barilla pastas together: spinach zucchini rotini and farfalle. The spinach and zucchini rotini pasta does not have a Barilla pasta number on the box like the others do, but the box is easy to spot as long as your grocery store carries it.
I like mixing these two pastas together because the veggie blend rotini gives my pasta salads more flavor and also adds extra color. The Barilla veggie pastas also contain a full serving of vegetables per a 3.5-ounce portion. I used half of a one-pound box of farfalle and a little more than half of a box of the veggie blend rotini (the latter box is only 12 ounces instead of a full pound). To get a full 16 ounces of pasta for this dish, you may have to eyeball it like I usually do.
What Is Queso Fresco?
Queso fresco, or "fresh sheese" in Spanish, is one of my favorite kinds of cheese. It is a soft Mexican cheese, traditionally served shredded and melted atop warm entrees. It is made from fresh cow milk or a combination of both cow and goat milk. It's light and mild, which makes it perfect for pairing with summer vegetables and salads—like this cold pasta salad recipe.
I love to snack on it as is, and I'm always looking for new ways to incorporate queso fresco into my favorite dishes. My favorite brand is made by El Mexicano, and it runs between $3.00–$4.00 for a 10-ounce wheel at my local grocery store.
- 1 cup Italian salad dressing
- 1 small cucumber, quartered and sliced
- 5 ounces queso fresco, cut into cubes
- 2 carrots, shredded
- 16 ounces pasta
- 1/4 cup Miracle Whip
- 1 tablespoon minced onion
- 1 teaspoon parsley flakes
- Boil pasta in salted water per the directions on the box. (Skip to step two while waiting for the water to boil and also while waiting for the pasta to cook.) Drain pasta thoroughly.
- Wash and prepare vegetables. Peel, quarter, and slice cucumbers. Peel and shred carrots. Dice cheese into small cubes.
- In a glass or metal bowl with a lid, combine cooked pasta, Italian dressing, and Miracle Whip. Stir until pasta is evenly coated.
- Add parsley and onion to pasta and stir until seasonings are evenly distributed.
- Add shredded carrots and then cucumbers, stirring well between each new addition. Add cheese last, gently folding it in.
- Place lid on the bowl and refrigerate for approximately 3 hours before serving.
Making a Good Salad Great
It's true that adding the ingredients in the order listed in any given recipe's instructions can make or break a dish. While there isn't a lot of science behind this dish, and it's quite easy to prepare, adding the ingredients in the order I listed will make life much easier, I promise. Find out why in the following tips.
Tips for Making a Great Pasta Salad
- Prep time for this dish can go quickly if you properly utilize the time it takes the water to boil and the time needed to cook the pasta. I like to do my vegetable and cheese prep during that time.
- Using a glass or metal bowl for this dish is a good idea because plastic containers can retain oils (like those in the salad dressing), making them useless for preparing other dishes (such as whipping creams and meringues). I like to use a stainless steel bowl with a cover because the bowl gets very cold in the refrigerator (and it won't hang on to any lingering oil residues).
- For all of my cold pasta salads, I use my favorite Italian dressing, which is Zesty Italian "Anything Dressing" by Kraft. While traditional recipes call for oil and vinegar, this is a quick and easy way to get the same effect and flavor while adding other flavors as well.
- While I love to mix pasta flavors and shapes, it's important to pay attention to the cook times as they can vary. For example, the veggie blend rotini is ready in about 8 minutes, while the farfalle takes a full 12 minutes. Only boil together for the full time if both pastas require the same boil times. Otherwise, one of your pastas may get overcooked.
- Use fresh onion if you have it, but minced onion works great, too. After chilling for 3 or more hours, the minced onion will come back to life and look like freshly cut onions, thanks to all of the wet ingredients in this dish.
- To ensure the pasta is evenly coated with the pasta salad dressing, add it first. Stir and stir until there aren't any secret pockets of dressing or mayo. The Italian dressing and Miracle Whip mix nicely together and easily coat the pasta when it is still just a little bit warm and when they don't have to compete with the other larger ingredients.
- To ensure the spices are evenly distributed throughout the entire pasta, add those second and stir well.
- Since the vegetables and cheese (especially) are a little more fragile, add those later since they don't require a lot of mixing.
- If I'm making this pasta in a hurry and need it ready in time for dinner, my very first step will be putting the bowl in the frig. A cold bowl will help my pasta and other non-cold ingredients cool down more quickly.
- This pasta dish needs at least 3 hours to fully chill, but longer if possible. I like to do mine the night before so the flavors can fully come together.
Adjusting the Taste
- Taste test a spoonful before refrigerating to see if anything tastes off and adjust as necessary.
- Taste test a spoonful before serving. Sometimes my salad may need a little more Italian dressing or a little more Miracle Whip after chilling.
This is one of my favorite ways to prepare and eat pasta—especially if I have plain leftover pasta from other meals. This dish is easy to customize and easy to fall in love with. Adding different vegetable and cheese combinations will yield a new and different dish each time. Have fun coming up with your own recipes and starting your own comfort food traditions. What vegetables would you put in your pasta salad?