Mediterranean Pasta Salad

It’s that time of year when tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. In Chicago, where I live, it’s not easy to get great-tasting fresh tomatoes year-round. In fact, the window around here for vine-ripened tomatoes is open for only about four months of the year. So when those dead-ripe red beauties show up in the Farmers’ Markets around Chicago, I make it a point to use them in as many ways as possible.

One of my favorite ways to use fresh tomatoes is in a Caprese salad, in which slices of beefsteak tomatoes get layered with fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. I could easily turn a Caprese salad into a Pasta Caprese salad by adding cooked pasta and a splash of extra-virgin olive oil to the mozzarella and tomatoes (chopped, not sliced, in this case).

Those ideas are simply a preface to this Mediterranean Pasta Salad. The “Mediterranean” part of this salad has to do with the fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes thrive in the company of cucumbers, fresh basil, capers and cheese. I like the briny-salty flavor of feta for this salad, but chunks of aged provolone work great, too.

One of the secrets to a pasta salad — any pasta salad — is that you should rinse the pasta after cooking (this is the only time you should rinse pasta). Rinsing the pasta in cold water removes the starch from the surface of the pasta, so the pasta has a cleaner taste and works better with an oil and vinegar dressing.

You can make big batches of this salad ahead, but I would not push the shelf life beyond two days.

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Makes 4 servings (scale up in direct proportion)

8 ounces of farfalle, rigatoni or other short pasta
1 large cucumber, seeded, chopped
3/4 cup Nicoise or oil-cured olives, pitted and halved
1 cup torn fresh basil leaves
2 cups diced, seeded dead-ripe fresh tomatoes, Roma or plum preferred
3 tablespoons capers, drained, rinsed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled, or aged provolone, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cook the pasta is abundant salted boiling water until al dente. Drain, rinse in cold water. Set aside to dry for a few minutes. (Note: Pasta can be cooked a day or two ahead. Rinse the pasta and spread out on sheet pans. Refrigerate, covered.)

In a large bowl, combine the cucumber, olives, fresh basil, tomatoes, capers, vinegar and olive oil. Toss gently to combine. Add the cheese and toss again. Add salt and pepper to taste. Salad can be served at room temperature if need be, or it can be refrigerated for at least 1 hour before serving.