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The cold standard: Pasta salad takes its place at the table every summer

A cold pasta salad - the staple at many summer cookouts - can be a signature dish or something thrown together by a novice.

When a host or hostess ¬invites a crowd over for grilled steaks or burgers, guests usually bring the side dishes. Pasta salad is quick and easy, and there are as many variations as there are orzo in a box.

It's simple to make that pasta salad a healthful dish, especially when summer produce is abundant.

Dietitian Cheryl Bell of Chicago, who is a healthy-living adviser for Meijer stores, recommends starting the salad with a whole-grain pasta to increase the fiber, and to double the amount of vegetables.

Choose a vinaigrette dressing recipe, and use only half the amount the recipe states, she said. If you make a dressing from scratch and the recipes calls for ½ cup olive oil, choose ¼ cup vegetable oil and ¼ cup chicken or vegetable broth, and mix it with a flavorful vinegar.

If the party is last-minute and you have time to pick up just a prepared pasta salad from the deli, toss in albacore tuna from a foil pack and fresh baby spinach, Bell said. That will perk up the dish.

In a recent edition of The Dallas Morning News, Karen Elizabeth Watts explained how to make individual stacked salads that will make a stunning statement at your next cookout.

She uses rocks glasses, otherwise known as old-fashioned glasses, the short, wide glasses used for mixed drinks. The dressing goes into the glass first. On top of that, layer the ingredients uniform bits of chopped vegetables, cheese and a protein such as grilled chicken, shrimp or crab and refrigerate the whole thing overnight.

At party time, carefully turn out each salad onto a plate. The dressing filters down through the layers. Slowly remove the glass by lifting straight up, leaving the salad mounded on the plate. Press down lightly on the center of the salad to knock it over, then begin eating.

Watts' pasta salad goes together this way: zesty Italian dressing, pasta of choice mixed with cubed tomatoes, chiffonade of basil, micro greens, shredded Parmesan, diced squash, diced zucchini, chopped pepper medley and crab meat.

Cook's Illustrated tested a variety of pasta salad recipes, and the kitchen staff developed a recipe for a light, vinaigrette-dressed pasta salad. Too much acidity in the dressing can cause pasta to soften and the vegetables to dull in flavor and appearance. The cooks chose lemon juice for a nice flavor that's neither puckery nor sour.

Cooking methods other than blanching added more flavor to the vegetables, and they recommended grilling and roasting are good alternatives to blanching.

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CRABMEAT AND PASTA SALAD

4 ounces farfalline pasta, uncooked

½ cup cubed fresh tomato

½ cup chopped red, orange and yellow bell peppers

½ cup diced zucchini

½ cup diced yellow squash

½ cup freshly shredded Parmesan

¼ cup freshly shredded basil

¾ cup zesty Italian dressing

1 can (4 ounces) crab meat, drained

Cook pasta according to package directions, and cool. Mix tomato with pasta. Add peppers, zucchini, squash, Parmesan and basil. Pour dressing over mixture, and toss gently. Add crab meat and toss gently. Makes 6 servings.

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PASTA `N' FRUIT SALAD

4 ounces macaroni or pasta shells, uncooked

1 can (11 ounces) mandarin orange ¬segments, drained

1 can (8 ounces) can pineapple chunks, drained

1 cup seedless red grapes, halved

1 container (6 ounces) low-fat yogurt, lemon or vanilla

1 cup strawberries, halved

Cook macaroni as directed on package. Drain; rinse with cold water. In medium bowl, combine all ingredients except yogurt and strawberries; mix gently. Stir in yogurt; mix gently to coat. Cover; refrigerate 1 to 2 hours to blend flavors. Just before serving, stir in strawberries.

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