A Riff on Bert Greene’s Famous Ziti Salad
Cold pasta salad is almost a food group of its own in the United States. It’s a dish we can eat year round, but particularly love when the weather turns hot and sultry — as it does every July and August in my part of the US. And there’s something about a pasta salad made with mayonnaise that’s particularly satisfying.
My favorite main course pasta/mayo salad is Tuna Pasta Salad. But when I want to use a cold pasta salad as a side dish, this dill-heavy delight is the one I often turn to, particularly when homegrown tomatoes are in season. It’s a riff on the pasta salad made famous by the late Bert Greene at his gourmet food store (appropriately called “The Store”) on Long Island in the 1960s. This single recipe put his shop on the map — people would line up to buy the stuff.
Make this dish and your family will be lining up at dinner time with happy and hungry faces. And they’ll probably bring friends.
Recipe: Summer Pasta Salad
You can use any pasta with a “substantial” shape in this recipe. Greene used ziti. I often use rigatoni or shells, and today I decided to use farfalle (bow ties). I’ve made several changes to Greene’s original recipe. Most significantly, I omit the powdered beef bouillon that Greene stirred into his mayonnaise and sour cream dressing — I don’t think it adds very much to the taste.
I adapted my recipe from a photocopy of Greene’s that was given to me years ago. I own several of Greene’s cookbooks, but this recipe isn’t in any of them. It may appear in one I don’t own – The Store Cookbook. But you can find the original recipe all over the internet. Probably the best source is Arthur Schwartz’s post on The Food Maven. Bert Greene used to write a food column for the New York Daily News, and Schwartz was his editor.
This is a great side dish, and you can also serve it as a main course salad. You can adjust ingredient quantities in this recipe to suit your individual taste. The recipe takes about 20 minutes to prepare, plus at least another hour in the refrigerator to chill. It makes 3 to 4 quarts — enough for a meal plus extra servings. Leftovers store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 days or so (they’re still safe to eat after that, but the quality diminishes).
- 1 tablespoon salt (for pasta water)
- 1 pound rigatoni, ziti, pasta shells, farfalle, or other “substantial” pasta of your choice (not a spaghetti-style strand pasta)
- ~¼ cup milk (optional, but effective; see Notes)
- ~¾ cup onion, cut into ¼ inch dice (or to taste; red is best, but yellow or white work too)
- 1 large shallot, minced (optional; you may decide to add a bit more onion instead)
- 2 medium tomatoes, cut into ½ inch dice or smaller (about 1½ cups; or to taste)
- 2 small or 1 large red bell peppers cut into ¼ inch dice (about 1½ cups; or to taste)
- ½ cup sweet pickle relish (or to taste)
- ½ cup sour cream (reduced-fat versions work fine)
- 1 cup mayonnaise (may increase by ½ cup if you prefer a mayo-intensive salad, but see Notes; reduced-fat versions work fine)
- ~2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill (or to taste; a bit more is dandy)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt to season the water, and the pasta. Cook until al dente (cooking time varies with the shape of pasta; start testing after 6 minutes to be safe).
- While pasta is cooking, cut up onion, shallot, tomatoes, and bell peppers. You may want to reserve a bit of each vegetable for garnish.
- When pasta is cooked, drain in colander and rinse with cold water to cool (I use the vegetable sprayer on my sink). Shake the colander to shed excess water, and dump pasta into a large bowl.
- Sprinkle the pasta with just enough milk to moisten (about ¼ cup) and toss.
- Add prepared onion, shallot, tomatoes, and bell peppers to the cooked pasta.
- Add the sweet pickle relish (or gherkins), and toss pasta and vegetables.
- In a separate bowl, mix together sour cream and mayonnaise. Add red wine vinegar to taste (start with 1 teaspoon). Add dill, salt, and pepper to taste. Mix until tasty.
- Add dressing to the pasta mixture, and toss well to incorporate. Taste, and adjust seasoning (and vinegar). After tasting, you may decide you prefer a bit more sweet pickle relish, too.
- Place in an airtight container (or cover the bowl with shrink wrap) and chill for at least an hour before serving.
- I go back and forth between thinking this salad is better with a tubular pasta like ziti or rigatoni, or a “shaped” pasta like farfalle. Currently I’m liking the shaped pastas. Who knows what I’ll prefer next week or next month.
- The purpose of adding milk (Step 4) is to partially saturate the pasta, so that it won’t suck up the mayo/sour cream dressing. This is a good trick to make your dressing go farther.
- Speaking of dressing, the original recipe calls for 1½ cups of mayo, instead of the 1 cup I suggest. Frankly, even 1 cup may be too much — this salad doesn’t lack for dressing, IMO. But you can adjust to your own taste.
- BTW, I often substitute yogurt for the sour cream or part of the mayo. It lowers the calorie count and adds a pleasant tang.
- The original recipe calls for sweet gherkins (6, finely diced), and I sometimes make it that way. But pickle relish is an excellent substitute, and I prefer to use it.
- Greene’s recipe calls for adding a tablespoon of pickle juice (from the gherkin jar). That’s too sweet for me. If you want a bit more zip, try adding more red wine vinegar.
- If you don’t know Bert Greene, he’s worth checking out on your next trip to the library. His best known books are probably Greene on Greens and The Grains Cookbook. I also like his Honest American Fare.
Mars Needs Mayo
As I served up this salad, we were celebrating the successful landing of Curiosity, the new Mars rover. Our happy chatter fell silent as we both attacked our plates, but finally Mrs. Kitchen Riffs came up for air. “Gosh, it’s been so long since we’ve had this! Why don’t we make it more often?”
“Way too long,” I agreed. “I don’t think we’ve made it since last summer. There’s just so much great stuff to cook.”
“Too bad we can’t live by the Martian year,” sighed Mrs K R between mouthfuls. “It’s 687 days long. We could fit in lots more good eating!”
Who can argue with such impeccable logic?
The Kitchen Riffs lab can’t yet manage interplanetary travel. But maybe we could at least find a more exciting name for this dish — preferably one that honors the Mars mission. Like Curio-ziti. Or Red Planet Pasta.
“Hey, I’ve got it,” squealed Mrs K R. “Little Greene Pasta Salad!”
OK, our ideas need some work. But one thing’s for sure: The flavor of this dish is out of this world.
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