Pasta salads are the perfect solution when you’re looking for a dish that is nutritiously filling and large enough to feed a crowd.

For more than a decade, our Pesto Pasta Salad (featured in our July 23, 2013, column) has been the hands-down favorite in our family, a distinction that is now in jeopardy with the introduction of my newest creation: Fiesta Pasta Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing.

We hosted a large family gathering last weekend and I needed a hearty and filling side dish to serve with a top sirloin roast. Despite protests from my husband Tony and teenage son Gio, who were fervently on the side of our trusty old pesto mainstay, I decided to break with tradition and go in a new direction, taking inspiration from the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday.

Having already thrown caution to the wind with my updated menu plan, I figured I might as well continue this daring culinary adventure by selecting a noodle new to our repertoire as the base for this salad: elbow macaroni. You’re probably laughing (or rolling your eyes) right about now, but we have never used elbow macaroni in a recipe. Perhaps this stems from Tony’s Italian upbringing in Toronto where there was an abundance of noodle choices?

I don’t know the reason, but elbow macaroni ended up being the perfect choice for this salad. Its short, tubular noodles are just the right size to complement the other salad components, and the macaroni’s smooth and almost-creamy texture works well with the avocado dressing.

This Fiesta Pasta Salad features ingredients common to Mexican cuisine, including black beans, roasted sweet corn, tomatoes, bell pepper, red onion and avocado. When prepping the vegetables, keep your cuts as uniform as possible in size, using a black bean as the guide, and choose small tomatoes, like cherry or grape, that are firm enough to hold up to the hefty weight of a pasta salad. For best results, the avocado should be added to the salad just before serving to prevent any discoloration.

 

A great dressing is the key to a good pasta salad, as it must bring flavor and life to the dish while complementing the other ingredients. My Creamy Avocado Dressing is full of zesty flavor that comes from one avocado, peeled and pitted of course, then combined in a food processor with fresh lime juice and zest, jalapeno pepper, garlic, apple cider vinegar, seasoning, water and a good dose of fresh cilantro.

When making pasta salads, I always use a combination of extra-virgin olive oil and vegetable oil, a trick I learned from Chef Christian D’Agostino, an old friend and former employee. Olive oil on its own can be too viscous for a salad that is already thick and starchy from the pasta, and the vegetable oil adds a welcome touch of slipperiness that keeps the noodles from sticking together.

I made this salad a day in advance and spent the next 24 hours nervously anticipating my loved ones’ reaction. Much ado about nothing, as it turns out. Fiesta Pasta Salad was a hit with everyone at the party and declared by both Tony and Gio to be our new family favorite. Whew!

 

Fiesta Pasta Salad

Serves: 12 to 16

Ingredients:

1 pound macaroni pasta

1 tablespoon kosher salt

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups sweet corn (fresh, canned or frozen), roasted

1 pint cherry tomatoes, washed and quartered

1 orange or yellow bell pepper, medium-diced

1 cup red onion, medium-diced

1 to 1 ½ cups Creamy Avocado Dressing

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 ripe avocado, medium-diced

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a medium bowl, toss the sweet corn with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt until combined. Place the sweet corn in a single, even layer on the parchment and roast until golden brown and slightly charred, about 17 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and return corn to the medium bowl to cool. The corn may be roasted a day in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water, add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, add the macaroni and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente according to the directions on the package, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove pot from stove and drain pasta into a colander. Rinse immediately with cold water to stop the cooking process, lightly tossing the pasta to ensure even cooling. Once the pasta is drained and cool, transfer it to a large serving bowl and drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the noodles. Use a large spoon or rubber spatula to gently toss the pasta until evenly coated to prevent the noodles from sticking to one another.

Add the black beans, roasted sweet corn, quartered tomatoes, diced bell pepper and red onion and toss until combined.

Pour 1 cup of Creamy Avocado Dressing over the top of the salad and toss until fully incorporated, adding more dressing as needed. Add the salt and pepper and toss again to combine. Taste and add more seasoning as desired.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 24 hours.

When ready to serve, dice the avocado and gently stir it into the salad. Waiting to cut and add the avocado until just before serving will help prevent discoloration. Add 1 more tablespoon of oil and toss again just before serving.

Leftovers may be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Creamy Avocado Dressing

Makes: about 1 ½ cups

Ingredients:

1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted

1 garlic clove, roughly chopped

Juice from 1 lime (about 3 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon lime zest

½ to 1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped (start with half and add more as desired)

¼ cup water, divided

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

¼ cup cilantro leaves, stems removed

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup vegetable oil

Directions:

Use a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Place all the ingredients, except the oils, in the bowl and blend until well-combined. Turn the processor off and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Combine the 2 oils in a measuring cup or small bowl. Turn the processor on and slowly pour 3/4 of the oil into the feed tube, in a slow and steady stream, until fully emulsified and the dressing appears smooth and creamy.

If the dressing is too thick, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time and process until combined. If the dressing is too thin, add the remaining oil.

Taste and add more seasoning, lime juice/zest and jalapeno as desired.

Transfer dressing to a medium jar and refrigerate until ready to serve. Shake well before serving.

To store: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.