I know it should be as simple as dumping pesto on pasta…. but actually, it turns out I have some things to say about pesto pasta salad. That is, if you want a good one!
Pesto pasta salad
My pesto pasta salad rules are simple – don’t skimp on pesto, don’t be shy with olive oil, cook the pasta beyond al dente and add the smallest dab of mayonnaise to give it a touch of luxe as well as improving leftovers.
Why? Because these address two pet-peeves I have about pesto pasta salads.
Firstly, the pesto pasta salad that doesn’t actually taste much like pesto. Pasta with the faintest green colour, and if you close your eyes as you eat, it’d be impressive if you picked it as pesto.
Secondly, the dry pesto pasta salad. Actually, that’s a general pasta salad peeve. Just because it’s a cold pasta, that’s no excuse for dryness! I resort to all sorts of tricks to keep things juicy. Lots of dressing (using avocado is a neat, tasty trick, as is using a splash of pasta cooking water instead of gallons of oil). And juicy add-ins, like roast vegetables, tomato etc. (this marinated vegetable pasta salad is a solid summer staple).
Today’s trick? Just 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise. This works wonders to keep things extra juicy today – and even tomorrow when you pull it out from the fridge!
What you need for pesto pasta salad
The one thing that will make your pesto pasta salad stand out is freshly made basil pesto. But if it’s an emergency, use the fresh pesto you get from the fridge section – tastes a whole lot fresher than off the shelves in aisles!
1. Homemade pesto
Here’s what you need for the basil pesto.
Fresh basil leaves – Abundant and excellent value during summer!
Parmesan – or, if you want to really go luxe, parmigiana reggiano.
Pine nuts – sometimes, to change things up, I use walnuts, cashews or almonds.
Olive oil – Or a 50/50 combination of olive oil and grapeseed oil (which has a more neutral flavour so let’s the basil flavour come through a little more).
Garlic – Just a touch. Because it’s raw, if you use too much it can be a little harsh, I find.
2. Pesto pasta salad ingredients
And here’s what goes into my pesto pasta salad.
Pasta – Any short shape your heart desires! Shells, macaroni, wheels – go wild! I went spirals. I like to live life on the edge. 😂
Just a dab of MAYONNAISE – Not intended to make this a greasy mayo-laden pesto pasta salad! But a little dab goes a long way to give pesto pasta salad an edge of creaminess so it stays nice and “juicy” even the next day. It really makes a difference.
Prefer to skip it? Just add a little extra olive oil.
Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes – My add-ins of choice, so it’s not just all pasta. Love the combo of juicy tomato and the soft bites of bocconcini. If you want to skip these, just add a little more pasta. Or, use other add-ins of choice!
Rocket/arugula – I like to add some type of leafy greens into me pesto pasta salads for a hint of freshness and provide textural contrast. Rocket / arugula is great, love the hint of peppery freshness.
How I make pesto pasta salad
Simple – but I do have a couple of tips!
Cook the pasta beyond al dente so it’s quite soft. Why? Because pasta firms up when it cools. To the point of hard when refrigerated. Pre-empt this by cooking pasta a little longer so it’s extra soft when hot = perfect texture when cool!
Tossing order – Toss pasta, pesto and mayonnaise only first. Then the bocconcini and tomato. Lastly, leafy greens – as pesto tends to cling to it, and we can’t have leafy greens hogging the pesto!
It’s was simple as blitzing everything together using a handheld stick, until the pesto is quite smooth. Less clean up than using a food processor and a better result. Why? Read on!
I prefer using a handheld stick because you can make the pesto smoother which I prefer for pasta salads. Better coverage on the pasta. I like chunky pesto for using as a dip, dolloping on crostini, that sort of thing, where a bit of texture is pleasant.
Bonus: handheld sticks are far easier to clean than a food processor! (Though you can use a food processor if you need to – directions in the recipe).
How to make the pesto pasta salad
Well, I’ve pretty much already given the steps, but I’ll write them out anyway!
Cook pasta in salted water per packet time plus 1 minute so it’s extra soft, as explained above. Salted water is a must, else you will feel like your pasta salad is a little under seasoned.
BTW, I start my timer as soon as the pasta goes into the boiling water, not once it comes back up to the simmer. Just in case you’re wondering. 🙂
Rinse the pasta under cold running water to remove excess starch (which makes it sticky, not what we want for pasta salad) and cool.
Drain well and cool.
Pesto & mayonnaise first – Mix the pesto and mayonnaise through the pasta first.
Tomato & bocconcini next – Then gently mix through the tomato and bocconcini. We don’t want to bash up the tomato too much.
Leafy greens last – And lastly, toss through the rocket/arugula. Just quickly, to disperse. Don’t mix too much else the rocket tends to get weighed down with pesto. In other words – the leafy greens hog the pesto, and we can’t have that!
Storing leftover pesto pasta salad
Though pesto pasta salads are at their green-colour prime within a few hours of making, it will last for 2 days in the fridge and retain its green colour, albeit not quite as vibrant as when freshly made.
Also, the other big thing this pesto pasta salad has going for it is that it is still nice and juicy the next day, and the next. I find that cold pasta salads (other than mayo laden ones) are notorious for become dry in the fridge overnight because the pasta absorbs the dressing.
But in this one, the combination of using the right amount of pesto (generous!) and just 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise prevents this pasta salad from drying out.
Take it to picnics, as a side dish for gatherings, or take it to work for lunch. Such a great summer staple! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
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Pesto pasta salad
- 350g / 12oz spiral pasta (fusilli, or other of choice, 3 1/2 cups)
- 1 tbsp salt , for cooking pasta
Pesto (Note 1):
- 2 tbsp pinenuts , toasted (sub walnuts, cashews, almonds)
- 2 cups (tightly packed) basil leaves
- 1 small garlic clove , minced
- 1/2 cup parmesan , finely grated
- 1/2 tsp cooking/kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 7 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or 50/50 grapeseed/olive oil)
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise (S&W, else Hellman’s, Note 2)
- 250g (1 heaped cup) cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 220g/ 7 oz baby bocconcini , drained, cut in half (Note 3)
- 1 cup (tightly packed) baby rocket/arugula leaves (40g)
- 1/2 tsp cooking/kosher salt
- Small basil leaves , optional garnish
- Cook pasta – Bring 3 litres of water to the boil with the salt. Cook for the pasta packet time + 1 minute. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold water. Shake off excess water well, then allow to fully cool and dry.
- Pesto – Place all ingredients in a tall jug just large enough to fit the head of a stick blender. Blitz under pretty smooth. Not a green smoothie, we still want some visible green bits! but not chunks.
- Toss – Place pasta in a bowl, scrape in the pesto. Add mayonnaise then toss well. Add bocconcini and tomato, toss gently just to disperse. Add rocket/arugula and toss just to disperse.
- Serve – Transfer into a serving bowl. Scatter with basil leaves, if using. Serve!
For the love of pasta salads
Life of Dozer
Current favourite toy. Changes frequently. He’s not very loyal.
PS In case you have a burning desire to know – it’s a hippo. I understand. There’s no way you could sleep tonight without knowing what that slobbery waterlogged grey mass of fur is. Now you can rest in peace.
Actually, on closer inspection, possibly not a hippo? Any thoughts from animal experts much appreciated.
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