This Grilled Summer Pasta Salad will shine next to your pick of protein at summer cookouts. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: Cookout coming up? Step up your side dish game with Grilled Summer Pasta Salad

Editor’s note: For even more recipes, you can follow culinary columnist Sara Jeran on Instagram at @sarajstirs and subscribe to My Buckhannon to get new articles and recipes from Sara twice a month!

BUCKHANNON – Side dishes are arguably the most important part of a cookout.

These dishes allow a cook effort’s to shine. We all grill chicken and flip burgers, but the stand-out menu items are the accompaniments. When inviting close friends over, it is as simple as, “I’m going to grill Saturday; would you like to come over?” Scheduling conflicts notwithstanding, the answer to this question is always “Yes.” The dinner date is set with the only known detail: grilled food (typically meat) will be served.

This lends way for culinary creativity.

Baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, pasta salad are the traditional fare we know and have been enjoying for years. While there will always be a place for these classics, I would like to create space for the basics with a new trendy twist. Think brighter, lighter, and fresher.

I believe a proper summer meal should include a salad. This does not necessarily always translate into a bowl of greens. I encourage everyone to take advantage of lavish summer produce. Pasta salad is often the first side I pile onto my plate. The two standards are sweet creamy macaroni and Italian-dressing-style salads.

I am presenting a grilled alternative that is brimming with veggies.

Since the grill is already fired up, simply toss on some additional vegetables. Anything your household savors will be delicious. Tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, onions, squash, asparagus, broccoli, or corn are all fantastic options. A lemony, sun-dried tomato and garden herb dressing is the showstopper. Even better, the dressing doubles as a finishing sauce for grilled chicken, beef, or fish. The bold sauce flavors are fresh herbs, lemon, and sun-dried tomatoes. The tomatoes add a sweet element. The herbs and lemon shout summer. Olive oil as the base ensures that this turns out to be an ideal picnic salad, as refrigeration is not a concern.

Tossed salads can be boring and lifeless. I have attended covered dish events where I witnessed untouched salads more than once (I know because I am the one always bringing the salad and taking it home). It is easy for ingredients to become lost in a large bowl. This leaves an inadequate display of the contents, damaging the visual appeal. Of course, taste is crucial, but a dish must first be tempting enough for people to heap it on their plates and enter the tasting stage. In that vein, presentation and description make or break willingness to try something new.

So, to solve the salad presentation dilemma, I turn to one of my favorite presentation vessels – a simple wooden board. This allows me to properly spread all salad components to ensure they’re all visible to cookout guests. In addition to presentation, the board maintains the ingredients’ individual beauty. Lettuce is not weighed down with veggies, and denser items such as nuts do not fall to the bottom of the bowl to rest unseen. I swirl a slight drizzle of dressing for looks and keep the remaining on the side for guests to serve themselves. When I entertain with a salad, I offer only one dressing; the fewer options supplied, the smoother the serving. A homemade dressing should stand alone.

The board salad I am sharing is a riff on a classic, the Cobb salad. It’s a wonderful option for summer, showcasing garden delights. I keep this traditional with just a few variations. Boiled eggs are a must. Instead of bacon, I use crispy prosciutto. Your favorite crispy pork is always a fantastic option. Garden tomatoes and greens are plentiful on this board. Summer beets are a beautiful add-on. Creamy blue cheese is my choice, but any cheese will do.

Finally, I present the dressing – a homemade creamy basil. This dressing alone will have your guests talking (and eating, and leaving you with a clean board). Basil is summer’s herb, and when in season, it is bountiful. Parsley and chives are subtle complements. Lemon juice thins and lightens the dressing. Worcestershire sauce adds an earthy umami taste. Garlic rounds things out for a total winner.

I encourage you to try a salad board, or a modification of a typical summer salad presentation. Summer is meant to be enjoyed. If an ingredient is in season, allow it to shine. A meal can be successfully planned around one item such as a dressing. Take this challenge; I dare you.

If entertaining feels like a chore, step back, assess the stress, and simplify. A host sets the mood, an uptight vibe is not the way to start an evening. Remember, it is OK to take shortcuts. For example, I do not like to bake, so ice cream sundaes or local store-bought sweet treats grace my barbecues. Food is a reason to gather; company is a reason to stay. Give your guests the best of both, and everyone leaves richer with the gift of new memories created together.

Happy cooking. Peace.

Grilled Summer Pasta Salad

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb short cut pasta
  • 3 cups grilled veggies (I used tomatoes, mushrooms, and red bell peppers)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1/3 cup fresh herbs (I used basil, parsley, and oregano)
  • 1 garlic clove grated
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 grilled lemon
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped oil packed sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (may need more if they dressing seems dry)
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. In a bowl combine herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, lemon zest and juice along with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper according to taste.
  2. Toss cooked pasta and grilled veggies with the herb dressing. Stir in Parmesan and taste to check seasoning. Add more olive oil to loosen if needed. The dressing is also delicious spooned over grilled chicken.
This Grilled Summer Pasta Salad will shine next to your pick of protein at summer cookouts. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Creamy Basil Dressing

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoons oil (I use grape seed)
  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chives
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulse until combined. Taste and season according to taste with salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated for up to 1 week.

This Creamy Basil Dressing beautifully showcases summer’s herb and provides the perfect finish to any fresh, summertime salad. / Photo by Sara Jeran

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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