When the weather starts to sizzle, look for meals that require little or no cooking and can be eaten chilled. For picnics, family gatherings, or quick weeknight meals, pasta salads are a cheap staple. They're endlessly versatile -- a side dish or a meal, casual or elegant, classic or edgy, All-American or international. They can usually be thrown together in the time in takes to cook the pasta (which can even be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge). Let these 18 recipes serve as inspiration -- add a protein source for a one-bowl dinner or toss in whatever seasonal herbs and vegetables look fresh and delicious at the 'market.
Related: 13 Ways to Use Pasta
What's an easier, more classic dish to bring to a summer potluck than macaroni salad? A recipe from Taste of Home changes it up a bit with pickle relish in the dressing instead of vinegar. Chopped vegetables add color and crunch. Using pasta with ridges in it will hold the dressing better than smooth macaroni, and feel free to exchange the carrot suggested in the recipe for the more traditional red bell pepper.
Macaroni and cheese is a favorite winter meal, but making it into a salad moves it into the summer months. A recipe from Cabot Creamery uses a very sharp cheddar to lend a distinctly cheesy flavor to the mayonnaise dressing. This particular version includes bacon -- which could be left out for the few who don't love it -- as well as traditional breadcrumbs on top and a bunch of optional veggie extras to mix in.
For another twist on macaroni salad (for six to eight people), start with 3 cups of cooked macaroni (or 12 ounces dry). Chop 3 cups of romaine, halve about 20 cherry or grape tomatoes, and crumble cooked bacon to add to the macaroni. Make a dressing of a half-cup mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons chili sauce or a squirt of sriracha, 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix together, dress the assembled salad, and sprinkle two finely chopped green onions on top.
A seven-layer pasta salad developed by the Food Network has everything in it but the kitchen sink: There is ham, cheese, avocado, parsley, broccoli, and tomato mixed with farfalle (bowtie) pasta and a buttermilk-mayo dressing. A big glass bowl to show off the layers is a nice touch.
A deconstructed antipasto from Emeril Lagasse is dressed with a vinaigrette rather than a mayonnaise-based dressing and contains everything that might be found on an antipasto platter: salami, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, provolone, parsley, and basil. Add a handful of shaved Parmesan and feed a crowd with ease. Eliminate the prosciutto to keep it a truly inexpensive meal.
When springtime comes to farmers markets, asparagus and cold-weather greens such as arugula are as fresh and flavorful as can be. A pasta salad made with these ingredients, along with bell pepper, basil, grape tomatoes, and nuts, is easy, tasty, and vegan. It's so healthy that the recipe comes from the Cleveland Clinic cardiology program in Ohio.
Orzo, the small, rice-shaped pasta, is partly what gives a salad from Epicurious its Mediterranean flair. But feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and a touch of cumin in the vinaigrette really bring the taste of Greece. The recipe suggests garnishing with pine nuts, which are expensive; walnuts, toasted and chopped, will do fine as a substitute.
Ramen noodles aren't limited to the instant stuff college students heat and eat in minutes. Gimme Some Oven suggests breaking up a brick of noodles and toasting in the oven with some almonds as a salad ingredient. A mango and a honey dressing add sweet flavor to veggies from a pack of coleslaw mix, edamame, and avocado. As an appetizer, this serves about eight people.
This Chinese restaurant staple may not be regarded as pasta salad, but it is a mix of noodles and ingredients such as cucumber served cold. A recipe from The New York Times resembles a takeout version but is cheap, tasty, and easy to make, although it might be tough to find fresh Chinese egg noodles if there's no Asian market nearby. Some reviewers up the vegetable ante by adding broccoli or radishes.
This spicy meal from south of the border features poblano chiles and jalapeños. With instructions from Gourmet magazine, try a technique called dry roasting, in which ingredients are toasted in a cast-iron skillet until slightly charred (in the case of the corn, pumpkin seeds, and onions) or warmed through (the garlic and spices). This is a bit more complicated than other recipes, because roasting and peeling the poblanos takes time and care.
Minestrone soup can be deconstructed into a salad. It's a lot cooler for summer weather and a lot more portable for outdoor eating. With kidney beans and garbanzos, as suggested by Betty Crocker, there is enough protein to make this a full lunch or dinner. It's convenient to use bottled Italian dressing, but frugal cooks with another 10 minutes to spare can make their own oil and vinegar dressing with oregano, garlic, dried or fresh basil, and some crushed red pepper.
Panzanella is an Italian bread salad that makes use of ripe tomatoes and crisp basil fresh from the garden (or farmers market). There's no reason not to make it with pasta instead of bread. Gemelli or fusilli holds the flavor of oil and tomato. While waiting for the pasta water to boil, halve a basket of grape tomatoes or chop up two large tomatoes and sprinkle with salt. Drizzle with about one-third cup of good olive oil, give a pepper grinder about 10 turns over top, and let sit for about 15 minutes, till the juices run out. Tear up or julienne 10 large leaves of basil, rip up a half-pound of fresh mozzarella, and grate some Parmesan. A bit of chopped fresh rosemary is nice but not essential. Pour the cooked pasta over everything and toss, so the heat partially melts the mozzarella. Let it sit until cool, about a half-hour.
What makes a salad a Caesar? It's the dressing, the anchovy, the croutons, and the Parmesan. Of course, romaine is typically the foundation, but adding some penne makes it a really satisfying meal. To make the Caesar dressing, combine three minced garlic cloves, a tablespoon each of Dijon and wine vinegar, and 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (or Greek yogurt) and whiz in a blender. Slowly pour in a half-cup of olive oil and a smidge of anchovy paste. Mix this with the pasta, a torn head of romaine lettuce, slices of grilled chicken breast, and some cubed, toasted ciabatta or other hearty bread. Sprinkle liberally with grated Parmesan. To up the nutritional ante, substitute kale for the romaine.
This Asian salad is sweet, savory, hearty, and full of fruit and vegetables. A Diamond Nuts recipe mixes bowtie pasta with spinach, dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, cashews, and cilantro. The dressing combines teriyaki sauce with rice wine vinegar, spices, and a hint of sugar.
Stuffed pasta is fair game for salad, as long as it's enrobed in oil so it won't stick together. Rachael Ray suggests using mushroom, spinach, or chicken prosciutto tortellini, but ordinary cheese would do just as well. Combine it with chopped baby spinach, canned artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato, and red onion. A zesty oil and vinegar dressing with lots of garlic and thyme finishes it off.
After a busy day, make a family meal that's almost as simple as boiling water. Pick up a rotisserie chicken and rip the meat to shreds while water boils for the pasta. Cook a cup of orzo according to the package directions for "al dente." Drain and toss with 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of vinegar, a sprinkle of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Throw the chicken on top and mix in some baby arugula, grape tomatoes, roasted red pepper from a jar or the deli, and nice herbs such as parsley, basil, or fresh oregano. Top with crumbled goat cheese, feta, or any shredded cheese on hand.