No summer backyard barbecue is complete without side dishes to complement your main grilled attractions. We wanted to find fresh takes on classic sides that could be made ahead of time and would also hold up well at room or outdoor temperature. Coincidentally, our friends at Bon Appétit recently published an article "70 Memorial Day Side Dishes That Eclipse the Mains" featuring summer sides that fit this bill. Francis Lam joined Claire Saffitz in the Bon Appétit test kitchen as she prepared two of her favorite recipes for Romesco Pasta Salad with Basil and Parmesan and Charred Bean and Pea Salad.
Francis Lam: I should love pasta salad, because I love pasta and I love salad. But, pasta salad in my mind – like I don't know when it hurt me the first time, but I've never forgotten it and I've never forgiven it.
Claire Saffitz: Are you thinking about the macaroni salad with the pieces of hard carrot in it? The mayo-y one? I totally agree. It's like pasta salad should be the most delicious thing at your picnic or your barbecue, but so often it's weirdly sweet, gloppy and thick, and the pasta's really mushy.
FL: That's my thing! And I don't know if there's a way around it. Because you've cooked the pasta already and then you dress it, so it gets mushier and mushier.
CS: Right. We posed the challenge to ourselves to create a pasta salad that was none of those things. I can share sort of what we came up with.
The first thing was not using a mayo base. When I first tested the recipe, I tried a really bright vinaigrette. Another thing I realized was that when you eat the pasta cold a lot of those flavors are muted, so you have to make a punchier, more acidic, more heavily seasoned and flavorful dressing. We went with a dressing that's sort of based on romesco; it uses garlic, toasted walnuts and jarred roasted peppers that are all blended together with olive oil and lemon juice. It gives body and substance to the sauce. Like you would get with mayo, but it doesn't have that same heaviness. Another tip is dress the pasta salad with half of the dressing if you're going to make it in advance because you need to take it somewhere. Then right before serving add the rest of the dressing and toss it through. Because, you're right, it does continue to absorb all of those flavors and the dressing, so it can get almost dry.
I have here everything ready to go and I'm just going to finish tossing everything together. I have the pasta that's half-dressed, the remainder of the dressing, some Parmesan, and chopped fresh tomatoes. We figured this is summertime, it's getting into prime tomato season and we wanted that other fresh element that will add juiciness and make it more bright. We pulled some of the walnuts out from the dressing and chopped those up. The idea here was to create something with a lot of texture. And finally, some toasted breadcrumbs.
The key is cooking the pasta al dente and not letting it get too mushy. Another thing with this was using a shape of pasta that was less prone to overcooking, and not farfalle!
Photo: Alex Lau
FL: What's the deal with bow tie pasta salad?
CS: I know. My mom always made a bow tie pasta salad that I actually really like, but it does always turn a little mushy.
FL: It's one of these weird shapes where it's one thickness through most of it, and in the middle it gets pinched, so it's twice as thick there.
FL: You can't get that part cooked.
CS: I don't know how it became the go-to shape for pasta salad. It's probably the exact wrong shape for pasta salad. We went with a very large fusilli – that classic corkscrew shape – because it holds the sauce. You have all these other crunchy things like the chopped walnuts and the breadcrumbs that are going to get caught in those coils. It holds everything really well.
FL: I love that. And you're using, like, novelty size fusilli. This fusilli is the size of my thumb. [laughs]
CS: Yes. This was a special item. But you can use regular fusilli or any other shape that you like. I’m also going to grab some basil, which I think is important because it gives more brightness and an earthy herbal flavor that's really nice. You're in summer, so that kind of tomato-basil combination is classic.
FL: Sure. Big, beautiful leaves of basil thrown right in.
CS: Everything's mixed together. Top with more breadcrumbs.
FL: Handfuls of toasted breadcrumbs! Not even tasting it, I think I feel it because the pasta itself is going to be cooked ahead of time. The problem with pasta salad is usually the mush factor. Here, you're adding the crunchy breadcrumbs and crunchy nuts. You're adding all these different layers of texture so it almost distracts you from the pasta.
CS: We're definitely hedging with this recipe. [To Francis, as he tries the final product.] Is that good?
FL: Come on! It’s really good! That's legit!
CS: Mission accomplished. It's very bright. There's a lot of acid. I love raw garlic, especially in summertime, so there is some raw garlic blended into the dressing that's giving it an assertive flavor.
FL: I love your idea of first dressing it and then re-dressing it again. You can taste the dressing in the pasta because it's absorbed in the pasta, but having that other layer of fresh dressing on top.
CS: Right. And I think there's a good proportion here of dressing and other elements to pasta. It's not swimming in it, but it's also not too dry. It doesn't feel like it’s just pasta in there.
FL: This is wonderful. I feel healed.
CS: Oh, good!
Francis Lam and Clarie Saffitz with a dish of Charred Bean and Pea Salad in the Bon Appétit test kitchen. Photo: Erika Romero
FL: The next thing you're going to show us is a Charred Bean and Pea Salad.
CS: For our sides recipe story, we took as inspiration those classic barbecue sides that you see all the time. The three bean salad was the inspiration for this recipe. I really like it because it's so straightforward, and I love the method for cooking the beans, which is to broil them. You get a little bit of a char on the beans and they cook through. Then it's just a matter of putting together a simple olive oil dressing.
I already pulled the strings off of a pound and a half of snap peas, snow peas and green beans. You can also use wax beans. Any combination works. I toss them with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and season with a little salt.
My broiler is heated and I have the rack in the oven right at the very top, underneath the broiler. I've spread the beans in more or less an even layer. It's a large volume. But I like this method of cooking because some of them stay sort of crunchy and some of them get a little bit softer.
FL: There's some variety in the texture.
CS: Right. That gives is some texture. These are going into the oven. I knew you guys were coming so it's been heating for about an hour.
FL: Put those beans in a flaming inferno!
CS: In this kitchen we have big hoods, so a lot of times we don't smell things as they're cooking; if you're at home, you'll definitely know when they start to get done. But because I always forget when I put things in the oven, I'm going to set a timer. Just about two minutes. Especially because this has been heating for a long time.
While those are charring and cooking through, I have here, in a little sauce pan, about a third of a cup of oil, a half teaspoon of cumin seed, about three-quarter teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper, and two dried arbol chiles. I'll add some aromatics. I have six cloves of garlic; I'm going to smash those to get them out of the skin. I was thinking about one of the ways I really love to eat green beans is in Szechuan restaurants with the Szechuan peppercorns; I like that heat. That’s the idea the kind of started this recipe. I have these flavorful elements – the chiles, garlic, and cumin – and I'm going to infuse them into the oil. I also have a two-inch piece of ginger that I'm going to slice.
FL: Skin on.
CS: Skin on. This is organic ginger, so I don't feel like I have to take off the peel. I thinly slice that on top of the garlic. I'm just trying to swirl this and as the oil heats up, I'll start to sizzle all those spices.
FL: This is a serious infusion, too. You have a lot of ginger, a lot of garlic, and a lot of spices. It’s going to be a super flavor-packed oil.
CS: Yes. It packs a lot of flavor because, as I said, as those things sit out at room temperature, it doesn't have the same flavor impact as something when it's hot.
It’s starting to sizzle; that’s a good sign. Okay, there goes the timer. Going to double check on those beans. And they’re looking good.
FL: Right on! It really was just a couple minutes.
CS: And it’s starting to smell really good, too. I have here, also, the juice of one lime and a little bit of maple syrup. I'm creating something like a vinaigrette here with all these different elements for that balance: the acid, the oil and the maple syrup.
FL: Wow. This smells amazing. If you're ever in a bad mood, just put yourself in front of a boiling pot of olive oil, ginger and garlic.
CS: This looks about done. I look for the garlic getting golden and the ginger starting to curl around the edges. After that cools down for a second I’ll add a teaspoon of maple syrup. You could use brown sugar or honey. Just a little bit to give it some sweetness to it. As well as that lime juice. This is still sizzling. The lime juice will cool this down pretty quickly. It’s really that simple.
Now, I’m going to spread out the beans on a platter because they've cooled off. If you're doing this ahead of time and take it somewhere to serve, you can do all of this and throw the oil in a jar, and the beans in a container. Then just dress it up when you get there. Right now, everything is a little bit warm, but this can sit for hours at room temperature. And I'm not even straining any of this stuff out.
FL: Just dump it right onto the beans.
CS: You can eat those garlic cloves. Maybe tell people to avoid the arbol chiles, but, you know, if you're into it.
FL: If you need a little adventure in your life, then go for it!
CS: Go ahead and try it.
FL: I love that. The sweetness of the snap pea. You get just a little bit of color on it, not a crazy dark char. And then with all that garlic, ginger and the spices – it’s delicious.
CS: And it's flexible. If you don't like cumin, you can use coriander or another whole spice. You can follow it exactly or you can kind of riff on it depending on what you have at home.
FL: My second bite was totally different from my first, because I got more cumin in this bite. And that bite was more about ginger.
CS: And the beans are a little thicker, so they are still a little bit crunchy. Versus the snap peas, which get really soft. I like having all that variation.
FL: This is so good! Thank you so much for having us.
CS: Oh, my pleasure! Thank you for coming.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.