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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Cupboard Cobbling: Baked Rainbow Chard, Bacon and Parmesan Sandwich

Pan 'O Sandwich.

Pan ‘O Sandwich.

Prior to dashing out of town at the end of last week, (and hence having been a bit quiet here lately) I found myself faced with the need to make a quick dinner with what I had on hand. This consisted of an abundance of the aforementioned chard in the garden, some tasty and local Pine Street Market bacon in the freezer and some leftover Italian Pane Bello bread, along with a bit of good Parmesan cheese in the fridge. Hmm. What can I cobble together?

Then I remembered a lovely baked sandwich my mom used to make when I was a kid. It had an eggy custard poured over it and had to sit over night before being baked. Also it seemed like there was a sauce. Well, I didn’t have overnight to wait, nor did I have the time or inclination for a sauce, but what the heck? I decided to experiment and the result was really good, so there ya go!

And actually, this was an interesting way to use chard in a one dish kind of meal and is similar to its close cousin the savory meat and vegetarian bread puddings which I’ve previously posted here, and here. But this one is definitely a sandwich…and it seems to invite endless experimentation and variations. Do you like yours more moist and custardy? Add more eggs and milk. Want to use a more melty cheese and some leftover ham or chicken? By all means. How about an all vegetarian version with spinach, mushrooms and the like? Why not! Endless possibilities.

This one is my starting point and we enjoyed it for two meals. I hope you will, too!

Baked Rainbow Chard, Bacon and Parmesan Sandwich
Serves 4

6 to 8 large slices of firm and hearty bread such as Italian Pane Bello
5 slices of thick cut good quality bacon
1 large bunch of Rainbow Chard (about 6 oz.) stemmed and chopped into bite sized pieces
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon of olive oil (if needed)
pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper for the veggies
3 large eggs
1 cup of milk
2/3 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, divided
1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or lightly grease a 7 x 11 inch casserole dish. Place half of the bread slices in the bottom of the dish in a single layer, cutting them to fit the dimensions of the dish. Cut the remaining pieces of bread to make a similar top layer, and set aside for later assembly.

In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until it is done and crispy, remove from the pan and allow it to drain on paper towels, reserving up to 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat in the pan. If you don’t have 1 tablespoon of fat left  from the bacon, add the olive oil to the pan to make a total of 1 tablespoon of fat/oil. Heat the fat over medium heat and add the garlic. Saute for 1 minute, then add the chard with a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute the chard until it is just tender, about 5-8 minutes, and remove it from the heat.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, 1/3 cup of the Parmesan cheese, the nutmeg, salt and pepper until well blended. Ladle 1/2 of the custard mixture over the bread layer in the casserole dish. Spread the cooked chard mixture evenly over the first layer of bread in the casserole dish. Crumble the bacon and sprinkle evenly over the top of the chard.

Dip the remaining pieces of bread into the remaining custard mixture in the bowl and place them on top of the chard and bacon in an even layer. Pour the remaining custard evenly over the top layer of bread. Sprinkle the bread with the remaining 1/3 cup of Parmesan.

Bake the sandwich for 35 to 45 minutes, until the custard is set, the cheese is melted and the top of the bread is lightly browned. Cut into four equal portions and serve.

Chard from the garden.

Chard from the garden.

breadinpanBread fitted into the pan.

baconCrisped bacon at rest.

chardgarlicinpanChard and garlic sauté.

breadwithcustard

First layer of bread with custard…

chardlayered

Then the chard layer…

baconlayered

Then the bacon…mmmmm…

readyforoven

Topped with another layer of bread, custard and Parm, and into the oven it goes…and then into my mouth!

A Better BLT

Okay, maybe that’s an oxymoron! I mean, can a BLT really get ANY better that the original bacon, lettuce, tomato on white bread with mayo variety?

If you build it, I will come eat it!

I say, perhaps it can…at least for me.

It was literally only a couple of years ago that I finally got over my aversion to mayonnaise long enough to have a BLT with a teensy bit of that white stuff on it, and I actually enjoyed it. And that’s still the way I usually have it…tried and true. Until now. Continue reading