Caprese salads (like this one) are ubiquitous in the summertime. Fresh tomatoes, leafy basil and creamy mozzarella are a flavor-match made in heaven. However, when you’re looking to feed a crowd, sometimes those fiddly slices can be hard to serve. Instead, incorporate all those classic Caprese flavors into a potluck-worthy pasta salad.
And the secret to the world’s best mozzarella, tomato and basil pasta salad? Fresh ingredients. But you don’t have to have a garden in your back yard to make it. We recommend foraging for fresh produce at a local farmers markets, through a CSA share or at your closest specialty market. Keep these tips in mind:
Choose the Right Basil
All basil is not created equal. For this recipe, look for sweet basil or Italian large leaf basil. We prefer to chiffonade the basil leaves for this dish; however, feel free to rip the leaves by hand or chop roughly. (Check out this piece on ways to cut basil and other herbs, too.)
Make sure the leaves are strong and intact, as well as a vibrant green. If the leaves are turning purple or black, don’t use them. They will damage the fresh, delicate flavor of the pasta salad.
Pick Ripe Tomatoes
We like the color, vibrancy and differing tastes of heirloom tomatoes. For this recipe, we used a smaller size tomato in a wide array of colors. If you do the same, for the best presentation, cut vertically from stem to bottom.
Editor’s Tip: Do not refrigerate your tomatoes! For the best-tasting fruit, leave them out at room temperature.
Select a Fresh Mozzarella
Fresh is best. From burrata to ovolini, fresh mozzarella is one of life’s great indulgences. For this recipe, we used perline mozzarella—a small pearl-like shape. If you prefer a creamier mozzarella, tomato and basil pasta salad, consider using stracciatella or placing a slice of burrata on top of the salad for the final presentation. Believe us—you can never have too much cheese.
How to Make a Mozzarella Tomato Basil Pasta Salad
For the salad:
- 1 package (16 ounces) rigatoni or other short pasta (like rotini, farfalle, penne, etc.)
- 1 quart small tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced
- 16 ounces perline mozzarella, drained. Or if you’re looking to impress, make your own with this cheesemaking kit. ($30)
For the dressing:
- 2 cups tomatoes, blended
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup good quality olive oil (Check out these tips for picking out the best olive oil.)
- 1-1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- Juice of one large lemon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Red pepper flakes, optional
Step 1: Cook your pasta
Cook pasta in generously salted water until al dente, according to package directions. It’s how Giada De Laurentiis cooks her pasta, after all.
Drain and toss the pasta in a small amount of olive oil, so the noodles don’t stick together. Let the pasta cool at room temperature while you prep the rest of the recipe. The cool pasta will prevent the cheese from melting later on.
Step 2: Start the dressing
In the meantime, use a blender to blend 2 cups of tomatoes until frothy. (See what blender our Test Kitchen recommends.) Then blend on low and slowly add 1/4 cup of olive oil. The blended tomatoes showcase the delicate sweetness these summer fruits offer, as well as thicken the dressing, coating the pasta generously with flavor.
In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup olive oil, white wine vinegar and lemon juice as well as salt and pepper, to taste.
Step 3: Toss the pasta
Toss the pasta in the tomato and oil blend. Stir in the oil and vinegar blend.
Gently fold in the fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, until just incorporated. Taste and adjust salt and pepper according to your preference.
Step 4: Plate the finished pasta salad
Jennifer Schwarzkopf for Taste of Home
To serve, place the pasta salad in a large bowl and top with fresh tomatoes and large leaves of basil. Top with freshly cracked black pepper and a generous sprinkling of sea salt or other gourmet salt, for both flavor and a lovely crunch.
Why We Love This Dish
Pasta salads are not always the most elegant of dish presentations. However, the color and uniform size of ingredients make this fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil salad an inviting summer treat. The al dente pasta, soft cheese and firm yet juicy tomatoes provide a lovely variation of textures that you and your guests will find pleasing as well. We hope you enjoy this dish as much as we did!
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