When was the last time a pasta salad made you swoon?

Mediocre ones abound. You can find them — floppy farfalle studded with red pepper and corn — at barbecues and potlucks, all summer long.

But a gorgeous mix of well-seasoned vegetables and al dente pasta that’s glistening with good olive oil, citrus and herbs? That’s rarer than a perfectly grilled steak (which you might even ignore should a truly excellent pasta salad appear on your plate).

Before pasta salads hit the supermarket salad bar circuit, they were glamorous things.

According to food historian Betty Fussell, the pasta salad craze began in the New York Times in 1978. That was when Craig Claiborne, the food editor, featured a recipe for Cold Pasta New Orleans Style that adorned cooked pasta with garlic vinaigrette, chopped chicken, beets, black olives and artichoke hearts. His recipe was a marked upgrade from the coleslaw-like, mayonnaise-based macaroni salads that were the previous cold pasta standard.

An avalanche of fancy pasta salads followed in the 1980s and ’90s. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck enthused about their versatility.

Even Alice Waters is a fan. In her book, “Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone” (Random House, 1984), she offers three pasta salad variations — with fried bread crumbs, with fresh tomatoes and herbs, and with eggplant, garlic and peppers — all of which sound far more appealing than the pesto-drenched fusilli of today.

But, recent sad salads aside, there’s absolutely no reason pasta salad can’t reclaim its short-lived glory. When thoughtfully made with really good ingredients, pasta salad can (and should) be divine — the fresh and sprightly sleeper hit of your next summer soirée.

These recipes are a good place to start. There’s a tortellini salad, with a creamy green goddess dressing that’s heady with herbs and scallions; a zippy jumble of chewy farro and orzo, tossed with dried apricots, goat cheese and mint; a juicy summer tomato pasta salad scented with garlic and basil; and finally, a template for classic balsamic-dressed pasta salad, with mozzarella and cucumbers, that you can make your very own.

Before you start cooking, however, there are a few rules that must be addressed.

The first is the most vital: Don’t overcook your pasta. If you drain it while still al dente (it should have a spine to it when you bite down), it won’t turn to mush as it sits in the dressing. Next, add your hot, just-drained pasta to the dressing without rinsing. The oil in the dressing will keep the noodles from sticking together. Finally, let the pasta cool in the dressing so it can absorb the most flavor, but don’t add any crunchy vegetables until just before serving, so they stay crisp and fresh.

Because pasta salad is a make-ahead dish only to a point, some last-minute tinkering — a ruffle of fresh herbs, a drizzle of great olive oil and a dusting of flaky sea salt — is what lifts your pasta salad from the quotidian to the sublime. Which is exactly where good pasta salads deserve to be.

Yield: 10 to 14 servings

For the pasta salad:

Kosher salt

1 cup farro

2 bay leaves

1 pound orzo

3/4 cup diced dried apricots

3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

3/4 cup thinly sliced celery

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3/4 cup sliced almonds

2 cups baby spinach leaves (2 ounces)

1 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese (4 ounces)

1/2 cup torn mint leaves

1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves

Freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing:

2 large lemons

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more to taste

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add farro and bay leaves and let simmer for 15 minutes. Add orzo to the pot and continue to simmer until farro and pasta are cooked through but still al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes longer.

2. While farro is cooking, prepare the dressing: Finely grate zest from the lemons, and place zest in a large bowl. Squeeze juice from 1½ lemons and add to zest along with salt, pepper and red-pepper flakes, whisking to combine. Gradually whisk in oil. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice from the other lemon half, or both, if needed.

3. Drain farro-pasta mixture, discarding bay leaves. Add to bowl with dressing and toss well. Stir in apricots. Let farro and pasta cool, soaking up the dressing. This can be done up to 1 day in advance. Store in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before proceeding.

4. In a small bowl, combine onions, celery, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and a large pinch of salt. Let sit while the pasta cools, at least 20 minutes.

5. Just before serving, add onion mixture and almonds to the bowl with the farro and pasta and toss well. Gently fold in spinach, goat cheese, mint and parsley. Taste and add more lemon, red-pepper flakes or salt if needed.

6. Drizzle with olive oil and freshly ground black pepper before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Fine sea salt, as needed

2 (9- to 10-ounce) packages cheese tortellini

1 fennel bulb with fronds, tough outer layers removed (see Note)

1 cup sour cream or plain full-fat Greek yogurt

1 packed cup basil leaves

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped chives

2 packed tablespoons parsley leaves

2 garlic cloves, peeled

3 scallions, white and green parts

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for serving

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2/3 cup sliced sugar-snap peas

1 cup baby arugula

1. In a pot of heavily salted water, cook the tortellini according to the package directions.

2. Make the dressing: While the water comes to a boil, chop enough of the fennel fronds to equal ¼ cup. Put the fronds in a blender. Thinly slice enough of the fennel bulb for ¾ cup, and set it aside. (Reserve any remaining fennel for another use.)

3. Add sour cream, basil, chives, parsley, garlic, 1 scallion, lemon juice, ½ teaspoon fine sea salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper to the blender with the fronds and purée until smooth. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice, or both, if needed.

4. As soon as the tortellini is done, drain it well and put it in a large mixing bowl. Immediately, while it’s still hot, toss in enough of the dressing to coat. Let pasta cool in the dressing, at least 20 minutes and up to 4 hours.

5. Thinly slice remaining 2 scallions and add to bowl with tortellini. Toss in sliced fennel and sugar-snap peas. Drizzle with more dressing, tossing if needed.

6. To serve, transfer to a serving bowl, gently toss in arugula, drizzle with more olive oil and grind more fresh pepper over.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup drained capers or sliced olives

3 garlic cloves, finely grated or mashed to a paste

Kosher salt, as needed

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1 large basil sprig, plus 1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves

3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, minced (optional)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

1 pound short pasta, such as campanelle, fusilli or farfalle

1. In a large bowl, toss together the tomatoes, capers, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, black pepper, red-pepper flakes, the whole basil sprig and anchovies if using. Let sit for 5 minutes, then stir in ½ cup oil. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. The tomatoes should be aggressively seasoned. Let tomatoes marinate for at least 1 hour and preferably 2 to 3.

2. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until it is just al dente, usually a minute less than the package instructions. Drain well. Add to bowl with tomatoes while still warm and toss well. Let pasta cool, soaking up the dressing. Let pasta sit at room temperature for at least another hour and up to 6 hours before serving. Or chill for up to 24 hours; bring to room temperature before serving.

3. Just before serving, gently fold in torn basil leaves. Top with more olive oil and cracked black pepper before serving.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

For the dressing:

3 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

For the salad:

Fine sea salt, as needed

1 pound short pasta, such as campanelle, fusilli or farfalle

1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and diced

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 cup sliced cucumber

1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-size cubes

1/4 cup shaved Parmesan

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil

1. To prepare the dressing, in a large bowl, whisk together shallot, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in oil. Taste and add more salt and-or lemon juice if needed.

2. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until it is just al dente, usually a minute less than the package instructions. Drain well. While still warm, add the pasta to the bowl with the dressing and toss well. Let pasta cool, soaking up the dressing.

3. In a medium bowl, gently toss together avocado, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

4. Just before serving, add tomato, cucumber, mozzarella and Parmesan to the bowl with the pasta and toss well. Gently fold in avocado and basil.

5. Drizzle with olive oil, cracked black pepper and salt to taste before serving.

New York Times

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