Sarah's Plate: Pasta Salad Done Right

Let’s talk about pasta salad.

You know, the ubiquitous cream- and carb-laden mixing bowl that shows up at every barbeque, potluck and office party.

For me, pasta salad is the worst kind of culinary offender. Not because it’s fattening and carb-heavy. No, those are nutritional woes. Pasta salad disappoints the food lover in me because it is reliably underwhelming. Not horrible, but not delicious. Rather, it often falls into that gray area of “I can’t tell if this is bad enough to put down, or decent enough to keep eating.” That gray area that beckons you to that alluring mixing bowl each time you see it — just to see if, maybe, this time it’ll be an upgraded version of its former mediocrity.

It won’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fix that.

Before we get into our pasta salad makeover, let me explain my qualms with traditional pasta salads.

From a taste perspective, I find it too single-noted. By that I mean it has too much pasta, and not enough other flavorful good stuff (ahem, vegetables). Often it’s overdressed and under-seasoned—a horrible equation for flavorless goop. And while we’re on the subject of goop, I have to point out the customary clump factor. Yes, that’s the scientific term for refrigerated pasta salad that turns into a giant mass of semolina. Yum.

From a nutritional stance, I have to repeat myself: too much pasta. When your primary ingredients are refined pasta and creamy dressing, you’re left with an artificial fullness, followed by a spike in your blood sugar, followed by hunger and a returning visit to that mixing bowl.

In this week’s recipe, Lemon Tahini Orzo Salad, we remix the traditional pasta salad into a lightened up, yet entirely satiating, vegetable and pasta salad. An abundance of colorful vegetables take the emphasis off the standard starchiness. And the lemon and tahini dressing lend strong, refreshing flavors—along with a bit of staying power. Want some nutritional incentive to fill your mixing bowl with my reinterpretation?

Pasta-to-vegetable ratio
. I have an issue with traditional pasta salads—which notoriously lack in the veggie department—parading around as salads. To me, a non-negotiable requisite to dubbing something a ‘salad’ is a presence of vegetables—preferably lots of them. For this reason, you’ll notice that the first two ingredients are broccoli and orzo. You’ll also notice that the recipe calls for an equal amount of each. This, along with the fact that we’re opting for whole wheat pasta, ensures that you’re getting enough fiber to keep you feeling full (and not hankering for seconds, thirds or fourths).

Seedy fats. We’ve all heard nutritionists—myself included—sing the praises of healthy fats. While avocados, olive oil and nuts are the most celebrated contributors in the healthy fats club, seeds are often overlooked. Sesame seeds are a rich source of vitamin E, potassium, magnesium—as well as one of the few vegetarian sources of zinc. Lots of good stuff that, unfortunately, passes right through your system unless you’re really, really good at chewing. For this reason, I used tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds that makes it easier for our bodies to absorb all of those good-for-you nutrients. For the purpose of this pasta salad, tahini’s unsaturated fat content also helps with the satiety factor that traditional pasta salads lack.

Nutritional yeast. Perhaps due to its unappetizing name, nutritional yeast is another nutritionally potent ingredient often overlooked. If you’re unfamiliar with nutritional yeast, it’s a nutty, cheesy-tasting vegetarian protein that comes in flake or powder form. In addition to being a complete protein, it’s also rich in vitamin B complex, which manages stress levels and maintains healthy skin. Nutritional yeast is especially useful for vegetarians and vegans, who need to be vigilant about getting adequate B-12.

Tell me: How do you feel about pasta salad? Is there a barbeque or potluck staple that you find underwhelming and in need of a facelift?

Lemon Tahini Orzo Salad
Makes 8 servings

For the salad:
1 lb. frozen broccoli
1 lb. whole wheat orzo
2 large onions, chopped
2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
7 oz. jar roasted red pepper
6 oz. can (or 1.5 cups) black olives, chopped

For the dressing:
¼ cup tahini
2 lemons
¼ cup nutritional yeast
¼ cup hummus
2 tbsp. warm water
1 tsp. sea salt
½ tsp. cayenne (optional)
Parmesan and sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)


1.     Preheat oven to 375. Add frozen broccoli to an olive oil-sprayed baking tray, and roast for 10-15 minutes, until slightly browned.
2.    Boil orzo according to package directions. Once cooked and drained, set aside and drizzle with one tablespoon of olive oil (to prevent sticking).
3.     Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan, and sauté onions until translucent and beginning to brown.
4.    Add onions, broccoli, roasted peppers and olives to orzo. Mix.
5.    Whisk all dressing ingredients together until well combined. Add to pasta salad, making sure to coat evenly.
6.    Garnish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and parmesan, if you’d like.

Sarah Levy is a New York City-based nutritionist and food writer. As a board-certified nutrition specialist and a self-certified foodie, Sarah believes in a bipartisan respect for our taste buds and our waistlines. While it is often assumed that sound nutrition and delicious food are mutually exclusive, Sarah is on a lifelong mission to teach others that nutritious can be delicious. When she's not consulting with clients of her private practice Health Should Taste Good, she's eating, cooking, "happy hour-ing" -- and blogging about it all at The Foodie Diaries.

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