Some food, some drink.
Simple summer sides: “Better than The Box” Bacon and Ranch Pasta Salad.
I can't stand to to think that there's even one thing in my recipe repertoire that could be bested by packaged food; especially when that thing is as silly-simple as that "just add mayo" bacon and ranch pasta salad out of a box. I've attempted a few times now to duplicate this dish, and I just don't have the pantry of a food chemist necessary to make that happen. As it is, I'm throwing in the towel, as I can do a fresher reinterpretation with my eyes closed. This is a bacon and ranch pasta salad that defies mass-production with identifiable flavors and ingredients (and real beacon to boot). And while I can't deny that the packaged salad is quicker, this interpretation of that fairly ubiquitous summer side dish is just as easy, infinitely more satisfying, and a helluva lot less shameful to have on your plate next to a big ol' grilled steak and a pile of fresh greens.
Believe it or not, there are a few foods in my house that my wife will insist come from a box. And while I have made strides in this department, that blankety-blank boxed pasta salad with the fake bacon and the dehydrated peas and carrots is the culinary albatross that hangs around my neck. I've tried like hell to come up with a suitable copycat recipe that will elicit a nod from my significant other, and after a few good tries, I come to the conclusion that I'd have to sacrifice my scruples to do it. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to tarnish my pride, I'd rather be doing it with a lampshade over my head after having three drinks too many.
So does this mean I've succumb to defeat? Not hardly. I've given up on my wife where bacon ranch pasta salad is concerned (I already do a salad she likes anyway), and decided instead to upgrade the recipe entirely: Real bacon, vegetables that aren't NASA-certified, a dressing that doesn't use mayo as a crutch, and doesn't contain any of that ingredient known for its taste receptor chemical pathway-foolin' business. What we're shooting for here is a pasta salad that's light, creamy and fresh; and likewise tastes like something besides a salt lick.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Add salt and garlic cloves to a 4 quart pot 2/3 full of water and start it a-boiling. While your water heats up, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing in a large bowl, and keep it in the fridge until you're ready for it. When the water's boiling, add the pasta and cook for 6-7 minutes or until the the pasta is almost al dente.
While the pasta cooks, add the frozen peas and grated carrot into the colander you'll use to drain the pasta. When the pasta's done, drain into the vegetable-laden colander and then give it all a good rinse under cold water. Drain well, and stir to combine with the dressing.
- Psssst - Hey! Here's a secret: What's commonly referred to as "Ranch" is usually little more than a whole lot of onion, some garlic, and miscellaneous green stuff in a base of mayo and dairy.
- No need to buy minced onion and onion powder. A bit of time in the mini-prep will render powder from the dried minced stuff (incidentally, I like a multitasking stick blender-type chopper for this sort of thing).
- Peeling garlic can be tedious, but I got a favorite way to do it.
- No time to strain yogurt? A half cup of the stuff in the dairy case labeled "Greek" will work too.
- If fresh herbs aren't available, you'll wanna use half the amount of dry (chive is my fav if I gotta use dry).
- If you don't have smoked salt in your neck of the woods, or can't be bothered to order it, Malt Salt is a totally decent (albeit different tasting) alternative that might be easier to procure at a supermarket.
- There's a bit of reading between the lines here, but the order of the recipe is important to how the dish finishes. The method followed as listed ensures that the dressing gets time to hydrate its seasoning, and likewise the pasta doesn't sit around getting all gummy and nasty.
- This is a dish best served after it's made, but if you gotta make it a day ahead, then hit it with a splash of milk and a pinch of salt before the bowl hits the chow line.
If you've got expectations for a doppelganger of a recipe, you can quit reading now. I've attempted to season this recipe to jibe with the store-bought stuff, and I usually end up dumping salt and mayonnaise into the bowl to the point where it gets a bit ridiculous; which in my book is a testament to just how well-engineered boxed pasta salad is. That being said, the best way to win is to not play; which I suppose became the pretense for taking this salad in the direction that I did. This lighter-tasting approach allows individual components to remain recognizable in the dish, which keeps the flavors fresh. What's more, serving atop a bowl of greens and miscellaneous raw veggies, I doubt there will be a need for additional condiment, as there is fantastic synergy between the two salad camps when thrown together into the same bowl.
The challenge with doing no evil while fixing this type of salad is to identify where your flavors are coming from. We're not using all the mayonnaise of the boxed variety, and we have to look elsewhere for the flavor enhancing power inherent to MSG in the seasoning and those yeast and vegetable proteins contained in the [alleged] bacon pieces. So yeah- at the end of the day I'm still going to use salt to season, and rely on the fats in the dairy and mayo to move flavors around. And in the spirit of full-disclosure, the umami of the glutamates is still to be had in the form of Parmesan cheese and bacon. However, I think it's important to note what's just happened here: In the course of attempting to reverse-engineer this dish, we've identified where these flavors are coming from, which is more than you can probably say for a spoonful of the boxed examplar. And while this bacon and ranch pasta salad may keep you in the kitchen a wee bit longer than it's processed food analogue, it's most certainly something that you can be proud to serve at potluck, picnic or family cookout because after all it was you, and not a box that made it.