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Fourth of July : Pasta Salads: Beyond Macaroni

June 29, 1995|FAYE LEVY

We can discuss whether pasta salads are "in" or "out" as a trend, but judging from take-out windows, there is no question that they are constantly in demand. This is especially true of salads made of tortellini, ravioli and other stuffed pastas. It's so easy to be tempted when they are attractively displayed at gourmet shops and fine supermarkets.

But these delicious salads cost so much less when you prepare them yourself. And they are very quick and easy to make at home, especially if you buy ready-made tortellini from the supermarket. If you keep tortellini in the freezer as I do, you can have a stuffed pasta salad ready at a moment's notice. Frozen stuffed pasta usually takes only two to three minutes longer to cook than fresh. Even if you add just a few ingredients--perhaps some diced tomatoes and sliced green onions--the salad will be pretty and satisfying.

Pasta salads are especially welcome in summer. They are great for serving outdoors when you don't want to bother with hot food. When the weather is warm, you can cook the pasta during a cooler part of the day and enjoy it later.

Many of the usual pasta salad recipes will be more interesting if you use tortellini, agnolotti or ravioli instead of macaroni or pasta shells. The stuffing adds a new flavor element. Depending on whether you choose tortellini with a meat, cheese or vegetable filling, the salad takes on a different character. When you're feeling creative, try using stuffed pastas made with flavored dough, such as chile-spiced and herb-accented pasta.

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Sometimes you might like to enhance the salad with cooked or smoked seafood, meat or poultry. Ingredients you probably have in your pantry, such as olives, capers, roasted peppers in jars, marinated artichokes or sun-dried tomatoes, are tasty, effortless additions to pasta salads. When you have parsley, chives, cilantro or other herbs, chop some and add to the salad for a pleasant, fresh flavor.

You'll almost always want to include vegetables in some form, whether cooked or raw, or at least to serve the pasta on a bed of lettuce. An easy way to add color and flavor and boost the salad's nutritional content is to cook vegetables along with the pasta, adding them to the water according to their cooking times. Allow about five minutes for thin carrot sticks or medium broccoli or cauliflower florets, and about two minutes for zucchini sticks or sugar snap peas, or use frozen corn, peas or any mixed vegetables you like.

Many pasta salads, such as tortellini and chicken salad with roasted peppers, do not need a true "dressing," but just enough olive oil to moisten the ingredients. You can use a vinaigrette but do not try to use extra vinegar and less oil in order to make the dressing lower in fat; excessively vinegary dressings don't complement pasta well.

To keep the fat amount fairly low, select pastas with reduced-fat fillings that are now available at many markets. Choose a flavorful oil, such as extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil or a good herb-scented oil, and use sparingly.

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And just because these are called salads doesn't mean you have to serve them ice-cold. You an serve the pasta warm or cool if you like. Don't leave the salads at room temperature too long, however, or the stuffing could spoil. If you prefer to take the chill off, microwave the salad for a few seconds.

Perhaps the best feature of these salads is that they are ready when you want them. They are convenient for Fourth of July barbecues or just to have on hand in the refrigerator if various family members want something to eat at different times.

SPINACH TORTELLINI SALAD

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Salt, pepper

4 to 5 tablespoons walnut oil

1/2 to 3/4 pound or 1 (8- to 10-ounce) package cheese- or meat-filled spinach tortellini, fresh or frozen

1 (1- to 1 1/4-pounds) cauliflower

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 cup red cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup yellow cherry tomatoes

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts, optional

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* Whisk vinegar in small bowl with dash of salt and pepper. Whisk in walnut oil. Adjust seasonings to taste.

* Cook tortellini, uncovered, in large pan of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 7 minutes or according to package directions. Drain. Rinse gently with cold water and drain well. Transfer to large bowl. Add dressing and toss to combine.

* Divide cauliflower into small florets, about size of tortellini. Cook cauliflower, uncovered, in large saucepan of boiling, salted water over high heat until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well.

* Add cauliflower, parsley and red and yellow tomatoes to tortellini and toss gently. Adjust seasonings to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Let salad stand few minutes at room temperature. Sprinkle chopped walnuts over each serving.

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Makes 2 to 3 main-course or 5 to 6 first-course servings.

Each of 2 main-course servings contains about:

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