After demolishing any semblance of a manicure Sunday afternoon grubbing around in the garden in my bare hands, I had worked up quite an appetite. Suddenly—maybe in honor of Mother’s Day—the thought popped into my head that it would be great to make my mom’s recipe for pasta salad.
She never called it “pasta,” of course. Back in the day, it was either “macaroni” or “noodles” or maybe, if we were being exotic, “spaghetti.” (“Pasta” was a couple of decades later, followed soon by Perrier and the banishment of any recipe containing Jello or a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup—both staples of my pantry of origin.)
Call it macaroni or pasta, I had a powerful hankering for the delicious cold pasta salad Mother used to make—and the ingredients to make it. With, of course, a few substitutions. Mom made her salad with cooked macaroni, cubed ham, green peas and the ingredient I treasured most back then: Velveeta! I had neither macaroni, green peas nor Velveeta, but I did have some ham and a bag of rotini.
Once again, herbs made the difference between “pretty good” and “I could just stand here and eat this all day.”
Instead of the green peas, I used some fresh asparagus I’d just picked from my friends' farm. I cooked the asparagus for one minute in the microwave and slipped it in the refrigerator to chill while I cooked the rotini. After the pasta cooled, I mixed it with the ham (also from my friends’ farm), chopped onions (recipe follows) and asparagus, then began to seriously fiddle with Mom’s homey recipe.
First I chopped up a handful of fresh French tarragon—hands-down my favorite culinary herb—from another friend’s farm. Then I added some sorrel she had given me and instantly felt virtuous—an important part of any cooking session. The tarragon, in addition to adding its like-no-other flavor, gave the salad an instant nutritional boost. A rich source of vitamins C and A, tarragon also offers the B-complex vitamins such as folate, pyridoxine, niacin, riboflavin that function as antioxidants and help boost the metabolism. It is also an excellent source of calcium, manganese, iron, magnesium, copper, potassium and zinc. And did I mention that fabulous aroma and flavor only tarragon can provide?
Sorrel is also a great source of vitamins and minerals, and its tangy flavor was a great match for the flavor combinations in this pasta salad. To brighten up the flavor of the salad, I added a teaspoon of lemon juice and then remembered some tarragon vinegar I had made last season and still had in the fridge.
Not wanting to get completely out of control with the mayo, which would have compromised my feelings of nutritional righteousness, I substituted about a third of a cup of Greek yogurt and added a dollop of mayo just so I wouldn’t feel deprived.
I stirred this all together with a little kosher salt and a few grinds of white pepper to taste, then put it in the fridge so the flavors could get acquainted and start visiting with each other while I finished the last of my garden work.
I came back in and pulled this yummy dish from the refrigerator, realizing as I did so that my mother would never approve of what I had done to these poor fingernails. But I do think she was smiling down in approval of the new and improved pasta salad recipe.
Here it is, reconstructed to the best of my ability. Feel free to monkey with it as you see fit and let me know how your variations on a theme go. If you don’t want to add the ham, this will be completely nutritious and delicious without meat. The Greek yogurt offers good protein, too. (Throw in some Velveeta and say, “Thanks, Dorothy”—if you’ve a mind to.)
Variation on Dorothy’s Pasta Salad Recipe
• 2 cups cooked pasta, drained and cooled
• 1 cup asparagus, chopped, cooked and cooled
• 1 cup ham, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• 2 tablespoons red onion, finely diced
• 1/2 cup chopped French tarragon (You can use less if you're not as much of a fanatic as I am.)
• 1/2 cup chopped fresh sorrel
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• 1 to 2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar (I'm a big fan of this, but if you aren’t much into vinegar, go with the lesser amount.)
• 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
• 1/3 cup non-flavored Greek yogurt
• Salt and pepper to taste (I used white pepper.)
1. Basically, just stir all this up in a bowl, one ingredient at a time, put it in the fridge and go do something for 30 minutes to an hour so the flavors can mingle. It will be even better the next day, so prepare ahead for a potluck or party if you’d like.