Monday, December 27, 2010

Greek Pasta Salad

Thanksgiving and Christmas are over.  If you’re like me, you’ve had more than your fair share of unhealthy food these last few weeks.  But wait!  There are still all those New Year’s parties!  Not to worry.  Party foods do not have to be completely unhealthy.  Ask your hostess if she needs a pasta salad and make this super easy, super delicious Greek version.  And it can be made ahead!

The ingredients are simple:  pasta, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, Feta cheese, and Balsamic vinaigrette.  I occasionally add diced red onions and pine nuts.  I’d like to take some time to discuss each of the ingredients.

Pasta  Feel free to use any bite-sized pasta shape.  For this batch I used rotini.  To boost the nutritional value, choose a whole-wheat pasta.

Tomatoes  I used fresh tomatoes, but sun-dried tomatoes are excellent in this dish.  When using fresh tomatoes, you’ll want to seed them first.  Simply cut off the tops and quarter the tomatoes.  Then use your knife to cut and scrape the seeds away.

Cucumber  The cucumber can be peeled if desired.  Sometimes I peel it, sometimes I don’t.  The cucumber may also be seeded, though it is not necessary.  I have found that the best way to remove cucumber seeds is with my melon baller (the same one I use for apples).  Simply cut the cucumber in half length-wise.  Then use your melon baller to scrape the seeds out.

Olives  I’m sure this salad would be really good with a more authentic type of olive such as kalamatas, but they cost way too much for me.  So I use regular black olives.

Feta cheese  Feta can be purchased in a block or crumbled.  As I discussed in my fruit and nut salad post, I always buy a block.  Since this salad may be tossed with the dressing ahead of time, you want small cubes rather than crumbles.  Crumbles tend to disintegrate in dressing  if left too long.

Balsamic vinaigrette  While I do enjoy making my own dressings, this is one that I use store-bought.  My favorite for this salad is Creamy Balsamic by Ken’s Steak House.

Red onion  As I mentioned I sometimes add red onion, though I forgot it in this batch.  The key to using onions without them being too powerful is to soak them in water first.  Dice the amount of onions you need, then put them in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes.  Drain and dry on paper towels.

Pine nuts  I used to put pint nuts in my Greek pasta salad.  But no more—they now cost $19.99 per pound!  And that’s from the WinCo bulk bins!  I saw them in the bulk bins at Safeway for $29.99 per pound.  If you do want to add them, be sure to toast them before hand to bring out their flavor.

The following recipe is just a guide--all quantities are approximate suggestions.  Feel free to adjust the amounts as desired.  Want more veggies?  Increase the cucumber and tomatoes.  Want to make it dairy-free?  Omit the cheese.

Greek Pasta Salad
1 lb. pasta
3-4 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 cucumber, seeded and diced
1 can medium black olives, drained
¼ lb. Feta cheese, cubed
Balsamic vinaigrette
¼ medium red onion, diced, soaked, and drained (optional)
Pine nuts, toasted (optional)

Cook pasta according to package directions.  Drain and rinse with cold water to cool.  Return to pot.  Add tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and cheese.  Stir to combine.  Add desired amount of Balsamic vinaigrette and stir to coat.  Yield:  about 3 qts.

Make-ahead notes:  Sometimes I boil the pasta the day before and stir in some Balsamic vinaigrette before refrigerating to keep it from sticking together.  If you make the whole salad ahead of time, you will probably need to stir in some additional Balsamic vinaigrette before serving.

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