Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

Day 75

More picnics and barbecue fare! This recipe is a fun twist on the traditional macaroni salad often served at outdoor events. Potato salad and macaroni salad are staples because they are delicious, of course, but also because they are creamy. That smooth texture is a nice contrast to the tastes of alcohol and grilled meats and veggies, and it makes us feel like we had a perfectly balanced meal, taste-wise. 

I love July 4th picnics. Not only is it a wonderfully patriotic day, it’s also a day to spend time with friends, outside, enjoying pools, fireworks, and grilled food. When we receive July 4th party invitations, I always try to bring one pasta- or potato-based salad and one fresh and light salad. This year, I’ll definitely be contributing my Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad and maybe a cucumber-watermelon-feta salad (that will be my next blog post, for sure!).

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
This recipe is one that I created based on the many macaroni and creamy pasta salads I’ve eaten over the years. It’s quick and easy, and it uses a very helpful shortcut that includes bottled ranch dressing rather than homemade. Mind you, I made two pasta salads, one with bottled ranch and one with mayonnaise and seasonings. Honestly, the bottled ranch dressing, although not as healthy, held up much better for picnic presentations, so I’ll be recommending it in today’s recipe. Feel free to make your own, though, if you aren’t comfortable using a prepared variety. 


The first homemade macaroni salad I remember was made by my grandmother on my mom’s side. She added lots of mayonnaise and even diced tomatoes straight from her garden. It had flecks of color from carrots, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, and I remember that it was very simple but satisfying. Another quite different but absolutely incredible picnic pasta salad was one I remember eating at July 4th celebrations for my father’s side of the family. Daddy’s brother, Hunt, and Hunt’s wife, Nancy, used to invite the family to their house in town for July 4th. Everyone would bring a dish, but Nancy would do most of the cooking, much to our delight. Each Independence Day, she would make a different pasta salad that was en vogue that year. Nancy must have scoured cooking magazines constantly in the days before the Internet because her food was always new and exciting with the perfect blend of modern and traditional ingredients. Come to think of it, Nancy might very well be the best cook I’ve ever known. To my knowledge, she has no formal training, but she could have cooked with the likes of Julia Child or any Food Network chef had she been given the opportunity. 

Nancy tackled the extremely complicated recipes in magazines and cookbooks that most of us skip right over; you know the ones I’m referring to—those with directions (and no explanations) like “make a simple roux” or “after blanching” or “braise then thread with saffron”. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to spend an hour Googling words or looking at other recipes to understand directions like that. Nancy is fearless, though. She has always jumped right in, and the results have been consistently incredible. Once, she invited my father and I to dinner, for which she has prepared an herbed beef roulade, oven roasted root vegetables, and broccolini salad, long before anyone really used the hybrid kale/broccoli vegetable. Dessert was her sherry-soaked fruitcake that melted in our mouths. Nancy prepared these dishes with ease, and served them with her standard, humble modesty that is such a classic—and classy— trademark of her character. I miss her delicious food, to be sure. 

Today, Nancy isn’t often in the kitchen, as she is fighting the battle of her life against a dreadful cancer. She continues to exude grace and charm, even on her hardest days, and I’ve never known such a fighter. When we see our friends and loved ones battling a devastating illness, it isn’t easy to understand. Truth be told, it angers us. But, perhaps the most difficult part of the equation is that nagging question of why such lovely people are caused so much pain and suffering. We have to leave those questions and their answers in God’s hands, but it’s not so simple. Although I don’t see Nancy nearly enough these days, in my mind she is still pouring over Bon App├ętit and Food and Wine magazines, ear-marking recipes that she’ll try when she feels up to it. I just hope I get an invitation to that meal because there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be smashing! 

So, this recipe, albeit way too easy to compare to any of yours, is dedicated to you, Aunt Nancy. And, as soon as you’re back in the kitchen, I’ll be the first to jockey for the honor of being your sous-chef in training! Maybe I’ll even learn to make your beef roulade. I love you!  

Version with farfalle pasta



Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

Ingredients: 
1 box rotini or farfalle pasta, cooked al dente and drained
1 jar Marie’s Creamy Ranch dressing (from refrigerated produce section of supermarket)
2 medium cucumbers
20 grape tomatoes
1 red onion, finely diced
½ cup fresh dill, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped 
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

4 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)*

Directions: 
While pasta is still hot, add ½ jar of the ranch dressing and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until cool. 

Meanwhile, peel cucumbers only in sections using a vegetable peeler, leaving strips of green  for color and texture. Chop cucumber into bite-size pieces. Slice each grape tomato in half, length-wise (it’s just prettier that way).

Once the pasta is cool, add the remaining ranch dressing and all of the other ingredients. Stir gently until well combined. If you prefer an even creamier pasta salad, don’t hesitate to add just a bit more ranch dressing if you have it (or just add a little mayo mixed with garlic and onion powder). Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Sprinkle with crumbled bacon just before serving, if desired. 


*Bacon crumbles not pictured.

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