Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad / by Chelsea Zwieg

You know how Giada De Laurentiis does that over-pronouncing-Italian-words thing? Spah-geyyyyh-ti, Brooosh-KEH-tah, Pan-CHEYYYY-tah, Every little part of my wants to call this paaaasta salad with mozzah-reyyylll-ah every time I talk about it but then I remember that I am not a world famous Italian-born TV chef with perfect teeth, flawless hair and a penchant for really low cut shirts. So I refrain. But maybe I should try the Wisconsin version of that? Talk completely normal 95% of the time but really tap into those Midwest roots when I say things like cheese curds, brats and beer? Something tells me it wouldn't be quite as charming. I'll work on that. 

But in the meantime, let's eat pasta salad. 

The number one thing I love about pasta salad is that it is already left-over ready. Hot pasta dishes are so great the night you make them, but heaven forbid you have leftovers and try to bring it back the next day from the congealed, somehow hard and mushy at the same time state it has achieved in the fridge overnight. Pasta salad, with a nice coat of olive oil and a bright dressing is just as good (and fresh) a few days down the road as it is the day you make it. 

And about that dressing. I will not lie, I would love to hate on all those mayo-slathered pasta salads hanging out at every deli counter around the country, but who are we kidding? I can most definitely get down with some macaroni salad at a 4th of July picnic. But on most other days of the year, I want something a little more flavorful. And colorful. I feel like my affection towards mayo would increase a hundredfold if it didn't turn everything into the most colorless-pale-white situation.

So for this pasta salad I made an Arugula Sunflower Seed pesto. As Giada might tell you, pesto is typically made with basil and pine nuts. But the truth is, the method (greens, nuts, cheese and oil) can be applied to any number of variations. The greens could be kale, spinach, parsley, cilantro or a combination of leftover herbs from last weekend's farmer's market shopping spree. And while pine nuts are delicious they are also like $87 (I might need an exact price check) and not something I typically have on hand. But nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds add just as much, if not more, flavor. I decided to use arugula and sunflower seeds. Arugula is one of my favorite greens. It's bright and peppery and provides an unbeatable flavor. Roasted sunflower seeds provide a nutty flavor except, heyo!, they're actually seeds and are super cheap. I love it. 

After you get the pesto blended up, the rest of this salad comes together in 5 minutes. Pasta (I like a shell shape for maximum dressing holding), chopped spinach, cherry tomatoes, salty Kalamata olives and creamy mozzarella cheese (if you can find/afford burrata, use that instead and please invite me over). 

I hope this salad, and all sorts of pesto variations, end up on repeat in your kitchen this summer. There are few things better than coming home after a day of swimming/sunning/ice cream eating to find a big bowl of fresh, herby, salty, cheesy perfection. 

Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad

Serves 6-8 (as a side)

Note: The pesto can easily be made in a food processor (all hail the beauty of my favorite kitchen appliance) but since my food processor is mammoth, I had a hard time getting it to chop everything as finely as I wanted with this small of a batch. I ended up finishing it in a blender for smoothness, which is not by ideal pesto texture, but still delicious. If your food processor is small-ish, it should work perfectly, otherwise I would recommend going the blender route. 

| Ingredients

For the Arugula-Sunflower Seed Pesto: 

  • 5 cups arugula, loosely packed
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

For the Pasta Salad:

  • 1 lb. orecchiette or other small shell shaped pasta
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella (I used the adorable little pearls you can find at most stores but you can also chop up a large ball into bite-size pieces)
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
  • 5 oz. fresh spinach, finely chopped

| Instructions

  • Prepare pasta al dente, according the package directions. Drain and let cool completely. 
  • In a food processor or blender combined arugula, sunflower seeds, garlic, lemon juice and parmesan cheese. Pulse until very finely chopped. With the machine running, stream in the oil. Blend until the pesto is smooth but still has a little texture and a some flecks of arugula.  
  • Toss cooled pasta with olive oil. Add tomatoes, cheese, olives and chopped spinach. Stir to combine. 
  • Add pesto, to taste, and toss until evenly coated. I would recommend starting with a 1/4 cup and going from there. I had a bit left over which can then be served on the side for guests who like to go a little more flavor crazy.