Cool and Dreamy BLT-Inspired Pasta Salad

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting longer by the minute, the temperatures are warming up and thoughts turn to outdoor living and entertaining. It’s already quite hot here in the South—just in time for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend holiday and the unofficial start of summer. All the more reason to whip up something delicious that won’t heat up your kitchen in the process. This Cool and Dreamy BLT-Inspired Pasta Salad is chocked full of fresh ingredients, making it the perfect side dish for a large gathering, a pot luck or just served by itself for a quick lunch or weeknight dinner.

If you’re familiar with a BLT sandwich, you expect a salad by the same name to include Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato, right? But in this case, bright green baby spinach leaves are substituted for lettuce, and fresh basil and chopped spring scallions are added for an extra depth of flavor. By replacing water-filled lettuce with healthy and tasty raw spinach, the pasta is less likely to get soggy and the salad will have a longer shelf life. Most importantly, though, changing the “L” to an “S” in this salad and making some fresh additions doesn’t change the wonderful taste profile of a classic BLT. In fact, it improves it.

Once the cooked pasta and other ingredients are assembled, the salad is tossed with just enough creamy ranch dressing to bind it together and finished with a little salt and pepper, to taste. The end result is an enticing and colorfully familiar dish that’s a real crowd-pleaser for any occasion. I tested this salad at a pot luck last week and the serving bowl was scraped clean—a very good sign. Try this easy recipe for your next event and I have a feeling you’ll come home with a clean bowl, too.

I hope you have a lovely week and for those who observe it, enjoy a thoughtful, fun and safe Memorial Day holiday. Cheers and bon appétit!

Cool and Dreamy BLT-Inspired Pasta Salad
Makes about 16 servings

Notes: As written, this recipe makes enough pasta salad to feed a crowd, but it can easily be halved—or cut to a third. In this instance, I’ve used a seasoning packet to make my ranch dressing because I have yet to come up with a recipe from scratch that tastes the same, but make your ranch dressing from scratch if you prefer. Any extra salad that hasn’t been exposed to warm temps (such as sitting outside at a party for a while) will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

1 1/2 lbs. (24 ounces) dry Farfalle or bowtie pasta
1 1/2 pints grape tomatoes, washed and quartered
3 oz. fresh basil leaves, washed and cut into thin strips (chiffonade), about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions (green spring onion), white and light green parts only
5 oz. baby spinach leaves, washed and coarsely chopped
12 oz. bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 1/2 cups of buttermilk ranch dressing prepared from a mix packet (I use Hidden Valley Original Buttermilk Ranch Dressing mix, 1 cup mayo and 1 cup buttermilk mixed together as per the instructions on the package. You’ll have 1/2 cup dressing left after using it for this recipe.) Or, use an equal amount of your own homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. Do not use bottled dressing!
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook the pasta in boiling water according to the package directions until al dente. Drain the pasta and set it aside to cool. When the pasta is cool, place it into an extremely large mixing bowl. Add the tomatoes, basil, scallions, spinach and bacon, and mix to combine. Pour over the 1 1/2 cups of ranch dressing and mix to combine thoroughly. Taste and then season generously with freshly ground black pepper and just a pinch of kosher salt, stir well and taste again, adding more salt and pepper if needed. The dressing and the bacon have salt in them, so go slowly with additional salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to serving to allow the flavors to blend.

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It’s the Simple Things

Happy September! Welcome to blue sky days and the winding down of the summer season. Although our summer is still making its presence known, we had a tease of fall a couple of nights ago that promised a welcome cooling off not too far down the road.

I’ve overused the word “busy” lately, because that’s what this year has been. Busy with work, busy with family, busy with life. And it’s all a very good thing. The only bad thing about it is that my blog has suffered a bit, as has my inventiveness in the kitchen. I beat myself up about that a little…thinking that I should only post when I have something excitingly new and different to share. Am I right or am I procrastinating? I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that as time goes on and the busier I get, I find it’s the simplest things in life that get you by and prove to be the most enjoyable. Like taking a ten minute break or walk during the week to clear your head, or a lovely longer hike in a forest over the weekend. An evening sitting out on the deck enjoying an unexpected cool breeze and the night sounds. An unplanned road trip for a day just for a change of venue. An ice cream on a sugar cone. A spontaneous run through someone else’s sprinkler on a hot day! Moments.

Enjoying the simpler things also applies to food. Of late we’ve been enjoying the simplest of dishes comprised of the summer season’s bounty. Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches both traditional with plain bread and mayo…and with some twists, fresh field peas, green beans from the garden roasted or snapped, a squash casserole, or with a bit more effort a squash and tomato galette, watermelon salad, grilled corn salad, lemon, strawberry, blueberry, or peach sorbets or pops…simple, delightful.

So today what I’m sharing is just that. Some simple, easy foods to enjoy before the season is over and we move into fall. Some of the recipes above I’ve posted before and you’ll see those highlighted and can follow the links to their posts. Some of the new recipes below aren’t really recipes so much as a method. Most all of them are quick to make and leave you with some time to sit and enjoy their simply wonderful flavor. I highly recommend dining alfresco if you have the opportunity!

platefullofveg3

Some seriously good eats. Field peas, charred broccoli with lemon and goat cheese and Cooking Light’s carrot and potato pancakes with curried yogurt dipping sauce. A Vegetarian’s delight!

Our Classic Family preparation for field peas or snapped green beans:
4-6 side servings

3/4 lb. shelled, rinsed and drained field peas such as black-eyed, pink-eyed, purple hull or lady peas
— OR —
3/4 lb. snapped green beans, rinsed and drained
2 oz. good quality raw bacon strips
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
1 measured teaspoon granulated sugar

Place the peas or the green beans in a medium-sized saucepan. Cover with water by 1 inch. Add the bacon, salt, pepper and sugar and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat down and cook until just tender to the bite, about 15 to 20 minutes. Scoop out with slotted spoon and enjoy.

If you only try one of these recipes, don't miss this corn salad!

If you only try one of these recipes, make it this corn salad!

Grilled Corn Salad
(Slightly adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine) My new favorite!
Serves 4

5 ears of fresh corn, husk and silk removed
3 1/2 tablespoons of good quality mayonnaise (I use Duke’s)
2 generous tablespoons of fresh lime juice
1/8 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1/8 scant teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 1/2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh cilantro
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a grill or grill pan for medium heat. Grill the corn, turning it occasionally until tender and charred, about 10-12 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Using a chef’s knife, hold the cob upright over a cutting board and cut the kernels off the cob cutting downward. Transfer the cut corn kernels to a medium bowl.

In another medium bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, lime juice, paprika, cayenne, feta and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Combine the corn with the dressing mixture and toss to thoroughly coat. Cover the salad with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 15-30 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Serve with additional feta and cilantro sprinkled over if desired. (Dressing can be made 2 days ahead, covered and chilled. Corn can be grilled and cut from cob 1 hour ahead and stored airtight at room temperature.)

Watermelon and Feta Salad with Mint or Baby Arugula (Rocket)
Serves 4-6
(This salad is best made shortly before you plan to eat it. The watermelon will release its juice the moment the salt hits it.)

1/2 of a small seedless watermelon, fruit cut from rind and into 1 1/2 chunks (about 8 cups)
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped OR 2 1/2 cups of baby arugula leaves
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (or more to taste)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large bowl gently combine the watermelon, mint or arugula, a generous pinch of salt and several good grinds of black pepper to taste. Add the feta cheese and gently toss to combine. Taste again and add more salt, pepper and feta if desired. Serve within an hour, ideally, to keep the watermelon from becoming too soupy.

BLT Pizza
You’ll have to decide for yourself how many this will serve depending on your level of hunger…at least 2 folks. Prepared crust gets this on the table in 15 minutes from the time your bacon is cooked.

1 Prepared 12-inch pizza crust
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 medium fresh tomatoes such as heirloom Cherokee purple or other favorite, sliced fairly thin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons of slivered or chopped fresh basil leaves (about 10-12 leaves)
4 ounces fresh buffalo mozzarella sliced, then cut into 1 inch pieces
3 cups baby arugula leaves
good quality extra virgin olive oil

Pizza stone and a peel, ideally
corn meal if using a peel to help release the pizza

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F with a pizza stone placed in the middle rack of the oven. If you do not have a pizza stone, place your crust on a flat baking sheet instead of a pizza peel and proceed to top it as below.

Place a good pinch of corn meal on your pizza peel if using one, then place the prepared pizza crust on top of that (or a baking sheet if not using a stone.) Drizzle about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil over the pizza crust and use your clean hands to rub it all over the surface and edges of the crust.

Place the tomato slices evenly across the crust leaving a scant 1/2 inch border along the outside, trying not to overlap but covering the surface area of the crust very well. Sprinkle the black pepper over the tomato slices and then evenly distribute the basil over the tomato slices. Place the mozzarella on top of the tomatoes and basil, again evenly distributing. Using the peel, place the pizza into the oven on top of the stone, centered, or place your baking sheet directly into the oven. Bake the pizza for 10-12 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly, and the edges of the crust are nicely browned. Use your peel to remove the pizza from the stone and place it on a large cutting board, or slide your pizza off the baking sheet onto a cutting board. Top the hot pizza evenly with the crumbled cooked bacon, then the arugula. Finish the pizza with a tiny drizzle (about 1 teaspoon) of olive oil on top of the arugula. Cut into six wedges and serve.

BLT Pizza is a one dish meal!

BLT Pizza is a one dish meal!