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Pesto Pasta Salad

Pesto is delicious in pasta salad! If you’ve never had this combination, you’re in for a treat. Make fresh basil pesto and dress up spiral pasta with olives, cherry tomatoes, green peas, and pine nuts. Great for lunch or a light dinner.

Pesto Pasta Salad
Elise Bauer

When it's the season for potluck barbecues, a quick and easy dish to prepare for a gathering is pesto pasta salad!

Spiral pasta catches and hold the bits of basil pesto. You can dress up the pesto and pasta with any number of ingredients.

Cherry tomatoes, nuts, peas, and olive tapenade are what I had on hand for this particular version, but you could also add goat cheese, slivered almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, or snow peas.

What's your favorite summer pasta salad? Let us know in the comments.

Pesto Pasta Salad
Elise Bauer

What Is Pesto?

The word "pesto" is the past tense version of the Italian word "pestare," which means to crush. That's because it was traditionally made by crushing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. The most popular variety is the Genoese version made from basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil, which is what we use here. But you can make pesto with almost any green.

Never made pesto? Try our Basil Pesto recipe, a favorite!

The Best Pasta for Pesto Pasta Salad

Spiral-shaped pasta, such as rotini or fusilli, works great in pesto pasta salad because the shapes hold the pesto nicely. It’s also fun to eat! Use any spiral-shaped pasta you like, whether it’s traditional wheat pasta, gluten-free pasta, quinoa pasta, or even spiral-shaped pasta made from veggies. Just follow the cooking instructions as directed on the package.

Tips for Cooking Pasta for Pasta Salad

  • For pasta salads, it's best to use a dry pasta rather than fresh pasta. They hold their shapes better when tossed with the other ingredients.
  • Since the pasta salad is served at room temperature, it's best to cook the pasta just about a minute past al dente. You want it soft enough, but not so soft it loses its shape.
  • Cook the pasta in salted water, since flavors of cold food need a little bit of amping up.
  • Don't let the pasta cool before tossing in the pesto. The pesto will adhere to the pasta better if it's still a little warm. If you like, reserve a little bit of the pesto to toss in just before serving to revive the salad.

Swaps and Substitutions

  • Penne and farfalla (bow-tie shapes) are great shapes for pasta salad, since they are also small and have nooks and crannies for holding the pesto.
  • Don’t have pine nuts? Swap in sliced almonds or chopped walnuts. Or leave the nuts out altogether, if you have allergies.
  • Not a fan of cherry tomatoes? Try sun-dried tomatoes, diced red bell peppers, or chopped cucumbers.
  • Top with Parmesan or goat cheese if you like a little more savory flavor.

This recipe is very versatile and forgiving. Have fun with it!

Store for Later

Pasta salad holds up well in the fridge. However, the pesto will darken and oxidize quickly. So, it's best to add the pesto just before serving, if possible.

Other than that, this recipe is great to keep on hand for weekday lunches or light dinners when it’s too hot out to cook. It's also great camping or picnic food, since it's designed to be served at room temperature.

It should last 2 to 4 days in a well-sealed container in the fridge.

More Delicious Pasta Recipes to Try!

From the Editors Of Simply Recipes

Pesto Pasta Salad

Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 25 mins
Servings 6 to 8 servings

Prep the salad while the water is on to boil for the pasta.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups uncooked fusilli pasta (use rice pasta for wheat-free version)
  • 1 cup fresh basil pesto, store bought or homemade
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green olives, or olive tapenade
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1 cup frozen peas, defrosted (or fresh if you can get them)
  • 12 ounces assorted cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Several fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method

  1. Cook the pasta:

    Cook pasta according to instructions on the package. Make sure the water is salted (one and a half teaspoons per quart). Remove pasta from heat and strain when pasta is cooked, but still firm (al dente).

    Pouring spiral noodles into a strainer to make pesto pasta salad.
    Eliezer Martinez
  2. Toast the pine nuts:

    While the pasta is cooking, toast the pine nuts in a small pan over medium-high heat. Keep an eye on them because pine nuts can go from lovely and toasty to acrid and burnt in seconds.

    When most of the nuts have a blush of golden brown on them, move them to a cool bowl or plate to rest. They will burn if you leave them in the pan.

    Toasting pine nuts for a cold pasta recipes.
    Eliezer Martinez
    Toasted pine nuts in a bowl for a pesto pasta salad recipe.
    Eliezer Martinez
  3. Mix pasta with pesto, pine nuts, olives, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil:

    Put pasta in a big bowl. Mix in fresh basil pesto, green olives, and pine nuts. Gently toss in cherry tomatoes, peas, fresh basil leaves, and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

    Serve at room temperature.

    Mixing ingredients in a large bowl for a pesto pasta salad recipe.
    Eliezer Martinez