What is it about pasta salad that makes it such a divisive dish? Is it that the many bad versions out there – soggy noodles swathed in bottled dressing and tossed with wan vegetables – make good ones hard to imagine? Or maybe since the dish reached peak popularity in the 1980s, the entire category seems about as glamorous as a home perm on a humid afternoon.
Given this prejudice, I will not call this dish of cavatelli, corn, tomatoes and red onions a pasta salad, even though it’s a snap to throw together, highly portable and equally good hot, room temperature or straight from the fridge.
The most salad-y part about it, though, is how little cooking is involved. While your pasta (cavatelli or any other small, easy-to-fork shape) boils, you can briefly heat the garlic and crushed red pepper in some good olive oil, letting it cook just enough to toast the chile flakes and take the raw edge off the allium before pouring everything into a serving bowl. That’s it for your skillet.
As for the corn, I like to throw the kernels directly into the boiling water, letting them soften as the pasta becomes pleasingly al dente. Fresh corn is best, and it’s abundant right now. But I’ve made this in winter with frozen corn, and it’s nearly as good and quicker, too.
Even out-of-season tomatoes will find a happy home in this adaptable recipe. Of course, ripe summer tomatoes are going to give you the sweetest flavor and juiciest, most supple texture. But year-round grape tomatoes – cubed up and left to marinate for a few minutes with the onions and aromatics – will work in the middle of January when you’re craving something summery to cut through the chill.
Dollops of milky ricotta add a plush softness, enriching the tomatoes and rounding out the garlic. But you can skip it for a lighter, brighter dinner.
Just don’t skimp on the herbs, whose freshness really brings the elements together. I especially love mint for its cool menthol bite, but any combination of soft, fragrant herbs – basil, cilantro, dill, chives, even arugula – will have the right kind of sharpness to zip up the sweetness of corn and tomato.
You could stop right there, and I usually do. But if the 1980s are calling, a few slivered sun-dried tomatoes or olives still work beautifully in 2023.
Pasta With Corn, Mint and Red Onions
Practically a no-cook recipe, this celebration of corn, tomatoes and plenty of herbs is about as easy as summer pasta gets. A dollop or two of ricotta adds milky softness, enriching the tangy, garlicky tomatoes and plump kernels of corn, but you can leave it out if you prefer. Although this dish is best with seasonal tomatoes and freshly shucked corn, it’s also excellent made with frozen corn and year-round grape tomatoes, cut into cubes.
Fine sea or table salt
1 pound cavatelli (or use another small pasta shape, such as orecchiette or shells)
5 ears corn, shucked, kernels removed (about 4 cups)
2 cups diced ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, more to taste
1/2 cup olive oil, more for serving
3 small or 2 large garlic cloves, grated
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, more for serving
1/2 cup chopped soft herbs, such as mint, basil or cilantro, or a combination, more for serving
Fresh ricotta, for serving (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, according to package directions. Add the corn kernels to the pasta about 2 to 4 minutes before the pasta is cooked. Drain.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt, and set aside to marinate while the pasta cooks.
Add the oil, garlic and red-pepper flakes to a small skillet set over medium-high heat. Let oil heat until the garlic is fragrant but not at all brown, about 1 minute. Pour into the tomato mixture.
Add drained pasta and corn to the tomato mixture. Stir well to coat the pasta. Mix in herbs. Taste and add more lemon juice and salt, if needed. Serve warm or room temperature drizzled with more olive oil, herbs, red-pepper flakes and dollops of ricotta, if you like.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings