Little pasta, big impact

Think small when making potluck pasta salads.

07/11/2012 7:32 AM

07/11/2012 7:32 AM

What is orzo? How do you cook Israeli couscous? Can you say orecchiette?

There’s a dizzying array of dry pastas on store shelves. Some have fancy names for something that’s basically macaroni.

We’re giving big pasta like elbows and corkscrews the summer off and downsizing for potluck salads.

Too often, dainty pastas like orzo and ditalini wind up in soups, but they’re great for salads and just as economical as their big sisters.

And they cook more quickly because of their size, so you can make pasta salad in a snap.

Larger pasta shapes tend to overwhelm the other ingredients. Small ones make room for scooping it all up in every bite.

Pasta salads are must-haves for feeding a crowd because they go a long way.

When making, allow about 1 cup of salad per serving if you’re having just one salad and a half cup if you have two or more salads. About 50 percent of your salad should be made up of pasta and the rest should be vegetables or other ingredients.

Here are some smaller shapes to try:

•  Orzo is rice-shaped and less than 1/4-inch long when cooked. Besides salads and soups, you can serve it as a side dish or stuff it in hollowed tomatoes.
•  Couscous comes in two sizes. The smaller version is sometimes mistaken for a grain; the larger, also called Israeli couscous, is pearl-sized. The latter has been showing up in more and more recipes, including salads. Israeli couscous adds little starchy bursts to today’s Israeli Couscous with Watermelon, Watercress and Feta.
•  In Italian, orecchiette (oh-rayk-kee-EHT-tay) means “little ears,” after the pasta’s shape. Orecchiette is a good change-up for salad because it’s not super small but still not huge.

Whatever pasta you choose, putting it in a salad offers an easy way to use the other bits and pieces lurking in your refrigerator. Have half a bell pepper or cucumber? Chop it up and toss it in.

You can use just about any raw or cooked vegetable in a pasta salad. Meats, too. Think chunks of ham or salami, prosciutto and even leftover rotisserie chicken. Shredded or cut up cheeses are also good additions.

Smaller pastas do better with a vinaigrette-style dressing. That way, they don’t get lost in heavy mayonnaise and other creamy dressings.

A fruity extra-virgin olive oil works best, but you also can use regular olive oil.

And if you can’t bear to stray from the corkscrew or penne pastas, you can find mini versions. A few years ago, Barilla pasta introduced its piccolini (meaning “little ones”) line of mini pastas. Look for farfelle (bowties), penne, fusilli and gemelli.

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