Improv Cooking Basics: Garden Pasta Salad

Man oh man, some fun times in the Walbacz household lately. Where do I begin?

Our heat pump/HVAC system is basically dying and leaking awfulness into the atmosphere, which means we’ve been without A/C for about two weeks now, and will continue to be so for about another week. Thankfully, we live in the mountains, so it’s not the worst – our temps don’t reach above the high 80s, generally, and our nights are actually quite cool most of the time. This keeps the house vacillating from about 78-85 degrees every day.

I suppose the rainbow in this whole no-AC situation is that I’m learning very quickly a) how to cool our house efficiently using fans, clever curtain use at particular times of the day, open windows, and closing doors and b) how to tolerate what was previously “intolerable,” temperature-wise. This also means I haven’t been much of a crunchy baker – more like a crunchy what-can-I-make-that-doesn’t-require-indoor-heating chef. Baking sourdough at 465 degrees is not an option when it literally makes your house almost 90 degrees. Nope nope nope.

This situation, blessedly, has also coincided with the explosion of produce we’re getting from our garden. This means salads, sandwiches, and no-cook (or minimal-cook) dishes galore with a plethora of fun vegetables. Stack that on top of our mini-CSA share with a homesteading friend of ours, and we’re set for the rest of the summer.

Which brings me to what this post is really about, and that’s pasta salad. And what this post is really really about is how to make a dish without following an exact recipe.

No no no wait don’t run away – come back! It’s not that scary!

Yes, yes. Sit down. One of the cool things (HAH) about summer produce is the ability to do fabulous improv with what nature gives you. Instead of planning exactly proportions, fruits, or veggies that might go into a particular dish, you can take what’s available (say, from your garden, or local farmer’s market) and plan from there. Yes, there are general rules to follow if you want to get a balance of flavors, but those rules are fast and loose and can be tailored to your personal tastes. A basic formula for, say, pasta salad, might look like this:

  • Sweet-ish produce – think tomatoes, sweet peppers, even berries, if you’re really feeling funky
  • Savory, pungent produce – green peppers, fresh banana peppers, onions
  • Fresh, mild, water-rich produce – cucumbers, squash
  • Salty/umami stuff – olives, feta, salt, pesto
  • Herbals – thyme, basil, parsley, etc.
  • Acids – lemon juice, vinegar, sumac
  • Starch/grains – couscous, short pasta, bulgur, wheat berries, whatever
  • Oil/fat

What you’re basically trying to do is reach a good balance of flavors and textures, based on what holds the salad together, but also on what YOU like and what’s available, versus what a recipe might tell you. If you hate olives, replace the salty aspect with pickles, or jalapenos, or cheese. If, like me, you find white onions are too strong, use a milder type, like green or red, to get pungency.

What I’ll give you here is a recipe I made recently with my available produce, with proportions of what you can use as far as the items above to make it your own. I strongly encourage you to use what’s available and in season from your local purveyors of produce and products. (This means raiding your own pantry, as well.)

Basic Garden Pasta Salad

This makes about 4-5 cups of pasta salad, more if you include the max amounts of everything. Adjust the proportions as needed.

You will need:

  • 1 c dry short pasta or grains – I used Israeli couscous this time around
  • 1 c sweet produce (seeded, chopped tomato, sliced cherry tomatoes, chopped sweet peppers, or a combination of all three)
  • 1/2-3/4 c pungent produce (onions, green peppers – use less if more pungent, or more if less pungent)
  • 3/4-1 c mild, water-rich produce (cucumbers, summer squash, or a combination)
  • 1/8-1/4 c salty/umami items (firm/semi-firm cheese, chopped olives, etc.)
  • 1/4 c chopped fresh herbs (basil, parsley, mint, and thyme work beautifully)
  • 2-3 tbsp lemon juice, or 1-2 tbsp vinegar
  • 2-3 tbsp oil, such as olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Cook pasta or grains according to their type. For Israeli couscous, I brought 1 1/2 c salted water (not too salty, as the water is all used!) to boil, stirred in the couscous, turned the heat to low, and covered the couscous for about 8-10 minutes until al dente. Rinse with cold water in a colander.
  2. In a large bowl, combine pasta, herbs, oils, and lemon juice (make sure to start with the minimum amounts). Fold in produce and salties. Taste, and add salt, pepper, extra oil, and acids according to your liking. The flavors will meld over time, and the salad generally becomes saltier and more astringent as it sits, so keep that in mind when adding items.
  3. You can serve and eat immediately, but the flavors will combine and blend better if you cover and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or a few hours before serving.

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