There's nothing better than crisp fresh vegetables in the summer, and what better vehicle to enjoy them in than this Pesto Pasta Salad!? It is bright, crisp, and nutty, thanks to the pine nuts. Heavy in flavor, and just an all-around perfect backyard meal side dish.
You'll notice tomatoes two ways in this ingredient list. Their brightness cuts the heaviness of the pesto and the richness of the creamy ranch base. The tart banana peppers help too, and I like to balance it all with a splash of white balsamic vinegar too.
The red onion adds a little sharpness and the mozzarella is lush and creamy. The pine nuts add a deep toasty crunch here and there, and the salty parmesan rounds everything out beautifully. And when it comes to the pasta, have a little fun, I picked up the shape you see in the images at Trader Joe's, but any swirly, twirly, pasta works great here.
Use the JUMP TO RECIPE button at the top of the post, or scroll to the bottom of the post to see the full recipe card with ingredient measurements and instructions.
I start by mixing up a batch of my homemade Ranch Dressing Recipe. I then drop ¼ cup of Pesto sauce and 2 tablespoons of white balsamic vinegar into it to create this bespoke dressing for this salad. Toss that into the fridge to build flavor while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Put the pasta on to boil, and while it is rough chop the banana peppers and slice the red onion. Toss them in a large bowl with a bit more white balsamic and stir them up. The vinegar will help take the raw punchy bite off the onions and make them more enjoyable. When the pasta is done cooking, rinse it in cold water till you can put your hand in it and feel no more warmth.
Then add it to the bowl with the peppers and onions and toss with the dressing. Add the mozzarella, finely sliced sun-dried tomatoes, grape tomato halves, and pine nuts to the bowl too.
Stir everything up and let it rest in the fridge for 1-2 hours, or overnight if you have the time. The flavors get better with time. Then just before serving top the salad with a few dollops of fresh pesto, shave over some parmesan cheese, and some more pine nuts.
Notes & Tips
The pesto flavor intensifies in the ranch the longer it sits. Make it up to the night before you use it for the best flavor. Add about a cup of it to the salad and reserve some for topping the salad just before serving, the pasta soaks a lot up, so it is nice to have a little extra.
Tossing the onions with the vinegar is a very important step. It takes the raw harshness off the onion, don't skip this step. It slightly pickles them and makes them much more enjoyable to eat.
If you have the time, let the salad marinate for a couple of hours before serving. While it can be served just after tossing up, I say pasta salad is like chili, it is always more flavorful the next day.
Be sure to toast your pine nuts before using them. It intensifies their flavors and makes them more nutty. Do it over low heat in a skillet on the stove so they don't get too brown or burn. Just till they become fragrant and take on a tiny bit of color.
I really believe in homemade ranch dressing. If you don't find the time to make it at home, (yes I believe homemade hidden valley is superior to bottled) purchase a really good brand of ranch, like one of the refrigerated ones.
The pasta you see in my photos is called fusilli corti bucati, I grabbed it on a whim at trader joe's, and I LOVE it! It is like the perfect pasta salad pasta. I have searched and found a few other brands that make something like it too, if you can't find it use any swirl pasta you can get your hands on.
Use your favorite Pepperoncini or Banana Peppers. I like to use the more tender plump mild banana peppers though. Mazzetta makes my favorite.
White balsamic vinegar lends a light, sweet, tart, flavor. You could also use champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar.
The mozzarella can come in the form of mini or pearl sizes. You could also dice up a log of fresh mozzarella if that is all you can find.