Pasta Salad with Pesto

Tested & Perfected Recipes

Zesty pesto, green peas, pine nuts, and mozzarella pearls make a flavorful and pretty pasta salad.

Though pasta salad is a staple at every summer cookout, most of them are (forgive me) pretty horrible. The usual formula — cooked pasta, raw vegetables, and tangy salad dressing — just doesn’t work well. The key to making a delicious pasta salad is to replace the sharp salad dressing with a flavorful sauce, and to use cooked vegetables instead of raw.

This is my favorite pasta salad of the moment. Zesty pesto, mellowed and thickened with a little mayonnaise, makes a lovely sauce. I go all-out green by adding sweet peas to both the pesto sauce and the pasta. Toasted pine nuts add flavor and crunch. And, finally, mozzarella pearls and fresh basil jazz the whole dish up.

Go ahead and make all of the components of the salad a day ahead of time, if you’d like. Just keep everything separate and toss together right before serving.

What You’ll Need To Make Pasta Salad with Pesto

ingredients for pasta salad with pesto

The best pasta to use for this salad is corkscrew-shaped fusilli, which has plenty of surface area and groves for capturing the pesto sauce. Rotini is another good option.

For the pesto, I use my Best Basic Pesto recipe, which is in my fridge practically all summer long, but store-bought will work, too.

For the cheese, use the real-deal imported Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy; domestic Parmesan pales in comparison. You can always tell if it’s authentic by looking at the rind, which is embossed with the name over and over. If the cheese is already grated, it should be labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” not “Parmesan.”

How To Make Pasta Salad with Pesto

drained pasta

Begin by boiling the pasta in salted water. Be sure it is fully cooked, as pasta firms up at room temperature (you don’t want al dente-cooked pasta for pasta salad). Set aside to cool.

toasted pine nuts

Next, toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat until golden. Keep a close eye on them, as they burn quickly, and then transfer them to a plate as soon as they are cooked. If you leave them in the hot pan, they will continue to cook.

Pesto and peas in food processor

Next, make the pesto sauce. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the pesto, lemon juice, and 1/2 cup of the peas. Purée until smooth, then add the mayonnaise.

puréed pesto and peas plus mayonnaise

Process again until the sauce is smooth.

pesto sauce for pasta salad in food processor

Toss the cooled pasta with the olive oil.

pasta tossed with olive oil in mixing bowl

Add the pesto-pea mixture to the pasta, along with the Parmesan, 3/4 cup of the peas, 3 tablespoons of the pine nuts, the mozzarella, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

pasta, peas, cheese, and nuts in mixing bowl

Mix well, then taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. (I usually add 1/4 teaspoon each more salt and pepper, but it will depend on the saltiness of the pesto you’re using and how heavily the pasta water was salted.) Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining peas, pine nuts, and basil over top. Serve at room temperature.

This dish would pair nicely with my lemon grilled chicken breasts and grilled flank steak with garlic and rosemary.

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Pasta Salad with Pesto

Zesty pesto, green peas, pine nuts, and mozzarella pearls make a flavorful and pretty pasta salad.

Servings: 8 to 10
Prep Time: 20 Minutes
Cook Time: 10 Minutes
Total Time: 30 Minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fusilli pasta
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup homemade or store-bought pesto
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, from 1 lemon
  • 1-1/2 cups frozen peas, defrosted, divided
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise, best quality such as Hellmann's or Duke's
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted (see note)
  • One 8-oz package mozzarella pearls
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, for serving

Instructions

  1. Cook the fusilli in a large pot of boiling salted water until fully cooked, 10 to 12 minutes (you don't want al dente pasta here). Drain and toss into a bowl with the olive oil. Cool to room temperature.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, purée the pesto, lemon juice, and 1/2 cup of the peas. Add the mayonnaise and purée until smooth.
  3. Add the pesto-pea mixture to the cooled pasta, along with the Parmesan, 3/4 cup of the peas, 3 tablespoons of the pine nuts, the mozzarella, the salt, and the pepper. Mix well, then taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. (I usually add 1/4 teaspoon each more salt and pepper, but it will depend on the saltiness of the pesto you're using and how heavily the pasta water was salted.) Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining peas, pine nuts, and basil over top. Serve at room temperature.
  4. Note: To toast the pine nuts, place them in a small dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden. Watch the nuts carefully, as they can burn quickly, and transfer them to small bowl immediately after cooking (they will continue to brown in the hot pan).
  5. Make-Ahead Instructions: The components of this pasta salad can be made ahead a day ahead of time; just keep everything separate and toss together right before serving.

Nutrition Information

Powered by Edamam

  • Per serving (10 servings)
  • Calories: 544
  • Fat: 36 g
  • Saturated fat: 8 g
  • Carbohydrates: 40 g
  • Sugar: 3 g
  • Fiber: 3 g
  • Protein: 15 g
  • Sodium: 591 mg
  • Cholesterol: 29 mg

This website is written and produced for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and the nutritional data on this site has not been evaluated or approved by a nutritionist or the Food and Drug Administration. Nutritional information is offered as a courtesy and should not be construed as a guarantee. The data is calculated through an online nutritional calculator, Edamam.com. Although I do my best to provide accurate nutritional information, these figures should be considered estimates only. Varying factors such as product types or brands purchased, natural fluctuations in fresh produce, and the way ingredients are processed change the effective nutritional information in any given recipe. Furthermore, different online calculators provide different results depending on their own nutrition fact sources and algorithms. To obtain the most accurate nutritional information in a given recipe, you should calculate the nutritional information with the actual ingredients used in your recipe, using your preferred nutrition calculator.

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Reviews & Comments

  • Great salad. Easy to assemble and very tasty. I didn’t change a thing and I won’t the next time I make it, which will be soon.

    • — Pearl McElheran on June 20, 2019
    • Reply
  • This is amazing! I can’t leave it alone….
    I cut the recipe in half. Thank you Jennifer for another five star recipe

    • — Pam Lucas on June 19, 2019
    • Reply
  • This pasta salad made me very popular at our church potluck over the weekend! I must have given the recipe to 20 people. Yummy!!

    • — Patti on June 17, 2019
    • Reply
  • Made this recipe the other night. Not one of my favorites that’s for sure. Followed the recipe but I just did not care for the flavor. Family agreed.

    • — Erika Horn on June 16, 2019
    • Reply
  • Absolutely perfect! I love pasta salad and am always looking for ones I love. This one fits the bill. Thanks, Jenn.

    • — Karen Funt on June 15, 2019
    • Reply
  • I did make my own pesto. I planted many many pots of basil this summer and wanted to use it all the time. I love this recipe. I will make it again. And Again….

    • — pamela m rider on June 13, 2019
    • Reply
  • I made this over the weekend for my niece’s bridal shower and it was a huge hit. I can’t wait to make it again!

    • — Lynn on June 10, 2019
    • Reply
  • I LOVE every one of your recipes! I am excited to try this but I don’t usually have good results with store bought pesto. Is there a brand you recommend?

    • — Julia on June 10, 2019
    • Reply
    • Hi Julia, I like Mama’s pesto from Whole Foods. Another reader mentioned that the Delallo brand is good. Hope that helps!

      • — Jenn on June 10, 2019
      • Reply
      • Thank you!

        • — Julia on June 11, 2019
        • Reply
  • I made this last night for a potluck dinner. Fantastic! Everyone loved it. While I’ve made my own pesto before, I used store bought for this recipe. It was the only thing I changed. It turned out delicious. In my opinion, the best store bought is Delallo Simply Pesto brand. Nothing artificial – all real ingredients. This recipe has been added to the rotation. Thanks.

    • — Cathy Krawczyk on June 9, 2019
    • Reply
  • Was really delicious!

    • — Jennifer on June 7, 2019
    • Reply
  • Looks fantastic! Cant wait to try it. Just have a question – what nut would you recommend for the salad if you didn’t want to use pine nuts (just like in the pesto sauce). Roasted walnuts?

    • — Lisa on June 6, 2019
    • Reply
    • Yep, toasted walnuts will work nicely.

      • — Jenn on June 6, 2019
      • Reply
  • Pasta? Pesto? Soft mozzarella? YES PLEASE! This looks delicious!!

    In your pesto recipe you recommend not using pine nuts because of their potential long lasting bitterness….. do you think they’re still okay to use in this salad? Perhaps walnuts as the substitute? Or is it a small enough amount?

    • — Barb on June 6, 2019
    • Reply
    • Hi Barb, It only happened to me once, and I think it was because I consumed a large amount when I was testing a recipe. I mostly use walnuts in the pesto because they are more affordable. I think you are fine to use pine nuts here. But, that said, walnuts would be delicious, too (just not as pretty).

      • — Jenn on June 6, 2019
      • Reply
  • Looks delish, Jenn! Love pesto and a pasta salad with it sounds divine….on the list! Thanks!

    Karen

    • — Karen Sarnowski on June 6, 2019
    • Reply

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