America has been having a love affair with pasta salad since at least 1920, when early recipes began appearing in American cookbooks. At first, the salads were mainly diner and deli side dishes, but eventually they achieved much higher status and became rock stars at the picnic buffet table.
To give these salads “gourmet” allure, the standard elbow macaroni was replaced with more exotic pasta shapes, such as penne, farfalle, cavatappi, fusilli, radiator, gemili, and conchiglie. And the simple mayonnaise or vinaigrette dressing took on bold new flavor profiles.
I make a lot of wildly creative pasta salads. This is not one of them. Sometimes tradition is what everyone wants, and the 4th of July seems to be one of those times. If I don’t bring THIS old-fashioned pasta salad to the 4th of July shindig, I am in BIG trouble.
The macaroni salad offered here is based on one that played an integral part of all of our family picnics when I was a kid. Each cook (Grandma Mary or one of my aunts) would give it a slightly different spin, but it was always rich, creamy, and delicious.
Over the years, the addition of Calamata olives became my personal touch (the original salad featured canned black olives), along with red bell peppers, garlic, and buttermilk-lemon dressing for a zippy tang. Tradition doesn’t have to be boring.
After years of experimenting with mac salads, there is one thing I know for sure: pasta absorbs seasoning in much the same way that potatoes do. In other words, you must over season today to get the perfectly seasoned salad you will eat tomorrow. When you taste this salad just after it’s made, you’ll swear it has too much acidity. I know, I know! The red wine vinegar in particular has a pungent kick at first. But don’t worry. In a few hours, every element will be in perfect, harmonious, and very tasty balance. I promise.
And in just the same way pasta absorbs flavor, it also absorbs liquid. You’ll notice that the dressing is perhaps a little more liquid than is typical. Again, no worries. The consistency of the salad will be perfect after chilling for a few hours.
Ingredient Note I used to love this salad with chopped eggs, but now I prefer it without. MauiJim likes it with sweet pickles. I like it with dill pickles. Since it’s hard to remember which way I made it the last time–to be fair to one or the other of us–I now leave the pickles out altogether. No one, including me, seems to miss them. But I leave that to your discretion.
Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad
Although this is a simple salad–which I expect everyone makes in one variation or another–it is one of my most requested recipes. Friends and family can’t seem to get enough of it, and if a picnic potluck is in the works, I’m invariably corralled into bringing THAT MACARONI SALAD. You just can’t argue with tradition, even on Independence Day.
Note If you’re making this salad a full day or more ahead, leave out the olives and fold in just before you serve the salad. They do on occasion tint the macaroni with which they come in contact an unlovely shade of purple.
4 cups small, dried seashell, salad, or elbow macaroni (1 pound)
3 cup minced celery (about 6 stalks)
3 cups tiny shelled peas, fresh or frozen
1 cup quartered Calamata olives
1 cup chopped fresh red bell pepper or roasted, peeled, canned red pepper
1 cup thinly sliced green onion (3 large green onions, white and green parts)
6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped, optional
¼ cup chopped dill or sweet pickles, optional
1½ cups “Best Foods” mayonnaise (or other creamy, rich mayonnaise)
½ cup low-fat buttermilk (sour cream or yogurt work in a pinch)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the peas. Boil for 1 minute only, remove with a strainer, and then refresh under cold running water. Put into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the macaroni to the still boiling water. Boil for 6-8 minutes or so, until the macaroni is just tender but not mushy. Drain and flush well with cold running water until cool. Drain again and put into the large mixing bowl with the peas.
- Add the celery, olives, red bell pepper, and green onion, plus eggs and pickles if using. (Add the olives later if you are making the salad a day or more ahead.)
- To make the dressing, scoop the mayonnaise into a medium-size bowl and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, Dijon, garlic, salt, and black pepper to taste. The dressing will taste overly tangy and salty at this point—which is perfect.
- Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently to combine. If necessary, season with additional salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
- Mound into a 3-quart serving bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes 3 quarts; Serves 8-12; or more, if other salads are present.
More Pasta Recipes from LunaCafe:
- LunaCafe OtherWorldly Mac & Cheese
- Old World Spaetzle: The New Pasta?
- Spicy Penne & Chicken Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing
- Spinach & Egg Fettuccini with Wild Mushrooms & Pancetta (Straw & Hay)
- Strozzapreti Pasta with Spicy Italian Sausage, Broccolini & Garlic Crema
- World Famous Green Chile Mac & Cheese