Salad on the menu? If a bowl of lettuce, tomato and other raw veggies comes to mind, stretch your imagination. With countless combinations of vegetables, fruits, meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese, pasta salads truly fit the menu. While the ingredients are important, a pasta salad is “naked” without a great dressing. By melding and enhancing flavors of very different ingredients, a light coat of dressing adds moisture and more flavor dimensions: sweet, savory, or a mixture of both.
Homemade dressings can be as fast and simple to use as those you buy, with infinitely more flavor creativity. All you need is a jar with a tight-fitting lid; fill it with the ingredients and give it a good shake. Or use a bowl and a whisk . . . a blender. . .or even a food processor to blend a creamy dressing.
Classic dressings have about 3 parts oil (or base) to 1 part vinegar (or other acidic ingredient), often blended with herbs or other seasonings or an emulsifier. (An emulsifier holds oil and vinegar together so they don’t separate.) You’re in charge, so shift the ratio of ingredients to fit your flavor and nutrition preferences.
Start with oil or another healthy base …
- Try various oils such as extra virgin olive, canola, peanut, safflower and more, with their healthy, unsaturated oils. Walnut and flaxseed oils provide heart-healthy omega 3s; avocado oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats!
- For a nutty, earthy flavor, use a little nut oil such as almond, hazelnut, pecan, or walnut oils, or perhaps pumpkin seed oil. Try tahini, a blend of olive and sesame oils.
- Experiment with oils with flavor from herbs, garlic, chiles, lemon and truffles.
- Plain yogurt also can play the role of the base to a creamy dressing that delivers calcium and more.
Add vinegar or other acidic ingredient(s) …
- Go beyond basic vinegar and try balsamic, rice, cider, or red or white wine vinegars. Fruit vinegars such as raspberry or mango vinegar give dressings a sweet-tart flavor; herb-infused vinegars add a savory layer.
- Replace some or all the vinegar with orange, lemon, lime or pomegranate juice, or puree berries to whisk into the oil instead.
- Skip the vinegar and try using white or red wine, or champagne instead.
Optional: Add an emulsifying ingredient …
- Mash ripe avocado to emulsify the oil with vinegar, fruit juice or wine for a creamy dressing.
- For a strong, tangy flavor, mix mustard (with a pinch of sweet ingredient for flavor balance) in a robust vinaigrette. Mustard powder works, too.
- As a non-dairy option, blend silken tofu with flavored vinegar. Made from soybeans, tofu has a natural emulsifier, as does mayonnaise, honey or egg yolk. (Use pasteurized eggs for food safety.)
Add another spark of flavor …
- For a sweet-source flavor, balance vinegar with a few drops of honey or a pinch of sugar.
- For a savory flavor blend in snipped herbs or crushed garlic.
These ideas were meant to get you started, as you think of other innovative ways to create delicious salads for your family table! For more pasta salad ideas, visit our website recipe section.
And join us for our annual summer celebration, Pastapalooza! Every week from Memorial Day through Fourth of July will feature a chance to win exciting prizes and download delicious new summer-inspired recipes. Enjoy!
Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RDN, CFCS is author of the Complete Food and Nutrition Guide from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, promoting the great tastes of good health!