Tony writes: When you get invited to a cook-out, there’s a certain etiquette to what, if anything, you should bring. And I know, because I think about this stuff endlessly (guilty conscience; I swear people can see right through me). It’s not that I’m above going to somebody’s house completely empty-handed, but I generally tote along a 6-pack or a bottle of something good enough to show I care. But if the host does bite at the old throwaway (“Can we bring anything?”), 9 times out of 10, they ask for a side and, after some hand-wringing, I try to deliver (wondering why I asked in the first place). So this Italian pasta salad has become my answer; the thing I bring to cook-outs and you should, too. It’s the most Italian of preparations: summer vegetables, a conversation-starting grain, and plenty of fresh flavors.
– What is fregola? Sardinia’s toasted version of Israeli couscous (the influence of Tunisia from the south). These tiny rounds (the size of peppercorns) are traditionally paired with seafood stews, but they also work well in faux pasta salads. Whereas Israeli couscous can have a gummy texture, toasting gives fregola a toothiness that holds up well in room-temp-ish preparations.
– The Italian way (serve warm or room-temp): Pasta salad went wrong when it went cold. Texturally, it just wasn’t meant to be. At 40F or colder, pasta turns an unhappy mix of gummy, gloppy, and tough. Sure, you don’t want to be cooking pasta while guests are standing around, but the route the Italians have long favored splits the difference: simply make the pasta salad ahead (an hour or so) and then serve warm or at room temp.
– My basic pasta salad method: Sear vegetables with high-heat (on the grill or stove top) while the pasta water comes to a boil. Cook the pasta, toss with the vegetables (chop them first if you like), good olive oil, some sort of cheese (like feta or ricotta salata) and a splash of lemon juice or vinegar. Let sit for up to 1 hour at room temp before serving.
The recipe (Serves 8 as a side)
1. Prep the vegetables: Peel 2 ears corn and remove the kernels from the cob (about 1 1/2 cups). Stem 3/4 lb. green beans and cut in 2-inch pieces. Crumble 8 oz. feta and thinly slice 3 scallions (both white and green parts).
2. Saute the vegetables (and heat the water for the pasta): Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat a large heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add 3 Tbs. olive oil and once it’s shimmering hot, add the green beans, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans brown in places, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1 pint grape tomatoes (the smaller, the better) and the corn, sprinkle with another 1/2 tsp. salt and cook, pressing the tomatoes down with a spatula to crush lightly, until the tomatoes start to soften and brown in places, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the sauteed vegetables to a large serving bowl and toss with 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil.
3. Cook the fregola: Stir a good sprinkling of salt into the boiling water and cook 1 lb. fregola, stirring occasionally, until it just becomes tender. Drain well and add to the serving bowl with the vegetables. Toss with the sauteed vegetables, feta, and 2 Tbs. lemon juice. Season with more salt and lemon juice to taste and serve drizzled with good olive oil.