once upon a chef

Pasta Salad with Pesto

Though pasta salad is a staple at every summer cookout, most of them are (forgive me) pretty horrible. The usual formula – cold cooked pasta, raw vegetables, and an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing – just doesn’t work well. The key to making a delicious pasta salad is to replace the sharp vinaigrette with a rich and flavorful sauce. In this recipe, 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, while mozzarella pearls and fresh basil jazz the whole dish up.


– 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 – 1½ cups frozen peas, defrosted, divided – ¾ cup mayonnaise, best quality such as Hellmann's or Duke's – ⅓ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano – ⅓ cup pine nuts, toasted (see note) – One 8-oz package mozzarella pearls – ½ teaspoon salt – ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper – 2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, for serving

Step #1

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.

Step #2

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.

Step #3

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. 

Step #4

Purée until smooth, then add the mayonnaise. Process again until the sauce is smooth.

Step #5

Toss the cooled pasta with the olive oil.

Step #6

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.

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.