Pasta salad is a classic crowd pleaser! It’s great as a side, main dish or lunch and comes together quickly. Create an allergen-friendly pasta salad bar for your family or a party with this recipe! Make one of Becca’s recommended pastas for those who are gluten-free! -Katie
This post is from KS Contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook.
“This is great! What is it?”
“Uhh…it’s just something I cook…I never needed a name for it in my brain….”
“Well, think of a name so we can talk about it so we can make it all the time!”
This is the conversation my partner Daniel and I had on the day we started living together, 23 years ago.
We were still setting up our new place, but I had to move out of my old place, so I came to stay in his old apartment just for a week. I walked over–about a mile and a half–carrying a week’s worth of clothes in one bag and all my groceries in another. The frozen vegetables were thawing. At least they kept me cool as I trudged uphill.
I walked into Daniel’s apartment and immediately put on a pot of water to boil. I threw in the veggies and some pasta. When they were cooked, I added two toppings. Dinner in 20 minutes–and it was delicious!
We decided to call it “pasta salad,” even though it’s different from other recipes that go by that name and are usually eaten cold. Years later, I invented a version that uses healthier toppings but still has a great savory flavor, appealing crunch, and plenty of veggies!
Topped with sunflower seeds and a sauce of olive oil, nutritional yeast flakes, browned onions, and herbs, a serving of Sunflower Pasta Salad has 10 grams of protein and a full day’s supply of folate, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. It also can have a full day’s Vitamin A and/or Vitamin C, depending on which vegetables you choose. It’s a good source of healthy fats and fiber. The oil helps you absorb vitamins from the vegetables.
This recipe is really easy and quick to throw together on a busy day! It’s also extremely versatile:
- You don’t have to measure anything! It’s all about proportions, and you can be very casual about tossing in approximately the right amount of each ingredient.
- You can use pretty much any combination of vegetables you happen to have.
- Veggies can be fresh, frozen, or pre-cooked leftovers.
- Veggies can be boiled with the pasta (this saves energy and reduces pot-washing) or steamed separately (this retains more nutrients), or some kinds of veggie can be cooked in the sauce.
- Exactly which herbs you put into the sauce can vary, depending on your taste or what’s growing well in your garden.
- You can use fresh or dried herbs or a mixture.
- If you don’t like sunflower seeds, you can use pumpkin seeds or chopped nuts.
- It can be served buffet-style for picky eaters or people who just like customizing their own plate.
- You can use any kind of pasta, including cooked pasta left over from a previous meal.
That last point was kind of theoretical: although my family has used white-flour or whole-wheat pasta, freshly cooked or pre-cooked, many different shapes…we’d never tried gluten-free (GF) pasta. Daniel, our two kids and I have no symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
But some of our friends and extended family are on GF diets, and so are a lot of KS readers. Sunflower Pasta Salad is a great dish for potlucks. Making it GF increases the number of people who can enjoy it with us! So we’re trying an experiment to see which GF alternatives to wheat pasta have flavors and textures that work well in this recipe.Print
This high-protein, vegan, versatile recipe is a delicious way to eat plenty of vegetables! Serve hot or room-temperature.
- Pasta (see below for gluten-free recommendations)
- Fresh or frozen vegetables–at least as much as pasta, up to twice as much
- Lots of –about 1/2 cup per pound of pasta
- Onion–about 1 small or 1/2 large onion, or 2 green onions, per pound of pasta
- Fresh or dried herbs like dill, parsley, rosemary, oregano, tarragon–enough to generously sprinkle into the oil, about 1 Tbsp. total herbs per pound of pasta
- Nutritional yeast flakes–enough to generously cover the top surface of the cooked pasta and veggies
- Shelled sunflower seeds (or chopped nuts)–enough to top each portion
- Salt, if seeds/nuts are not salted
- Tomato (optional)
1. Fill a big pot with water, cover, and bring to a boil.
2. Cut up all the veggies and divide them into two categories:
- The ones that will get boiled with the pasta are those that are in big, dense chunks: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, big pieces of carrots and zucchini, etc. (Another option is to steam these separately.)
- The ones that will get cooked in the oil are those that are thin and cook quickly: spinach, thin slices of carrots and zucchini, kale (shredded with stems removed), mushrooms, etc. Spinach or any shredded vegetable can be cooked in the oil even if it’s frozen; just break it into chunks as much as possible before adding it and then break it up with the spoon as it thaws. Note that when you cook veggies in the oil, their flavor and vitamins go into the oil, instead of partly going down the drain with the boiling water.
3. When water boils, add pasta and boilable veggies. Cook until they reach desired tenderness. Drain
4. Meanwhile, put olive oil, onion, and fryable veggies in the other pot over medium-high heat. When oil starts bubbling, reduce heat. When onion begins to brown, add herbs and salt (if needed). Simmer until onion is fully cooked and beginning to brown.
5. This step can be done in the pasta pot or on your plate: Cover top surface of pasta with yeast flakes. Add oil mixture. Stir thoroughly until yeast flakes dissolve into oil, making a sauce that coats pasta and veggies. Top with sunflower seeds and optional tomato.
To use leftover cooked veggies or pasta, just toss them into the pan with the olive oil mixture when the onions are almost done, and stir until warmed.
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What is the Best Gluten-Free Pasta?
As the mother of a 5-year-old and 14-year-old, each with complicated food preferences that seem to change weekly, I decided to make this meal buffet-style. I cooked each pasta alternative separately so we could try each one and their flavors wouldn’t influence or be influenced by, the veggies.
I bought Banza pasta at Target, Tolerant pasta at Big Lots and the others at my neighborhood Giant Eagle supermarket–which had a larger stock of GF products than usual because of Passover, when observant Jews can’t eat wheat pasta. I got the brown rice from a bulk bin at the food co-op. Cannellini beans came from ALDI–usually the best price in town on small cans of beans.
We tried two GF kinds of pasta and brown rice on Monday, two more GF kinds of pasta and cannellini beans on Tuesday. I borrowed saucepans from a friend in order to have enough pots to cook small quantities of so many things at once!
We had the same veggies both nights: I steamed frozen broccoli and cauliflower, and I sautéed onion, carrot, zucchini, and kale. The kale was frozen, but I just set it out on the counter when I started chopping the other veggies, and by the time I was ready to add the kale to my cast-iron skillet, it was mostly thawed. I like to start the onion first so it gets a little more browned, then put in most of the other veggies–but greens like kale or spinach cook quickly in hot oil, so they go in last.
A friend had warned me that GF pasta is more vulnerable to under-cooking or over-cooking than wheat pasta, so I was very careful to read the directions, set a timer for each pasta, check it promptly after the minimum cook time, and drain it promptly when it was done. When the pasta was ready before veggies, I mixed it with a little olive oil to prevent clumping and put it back into the pot with the lid on.
Tolerant Organic Red Lentil Pasta
My first impression, when I tasted a piece to see if it was done (it was, after the minimum cook time of 8 minutes), was that the texture was fine but the taste was weird–kind of like plain tofu but slightly bitter. Immersed in savory olive oil, though, these tasted just fine, and I definitely felt like I was eating “normal” Sunflower Pasta Salad.
Daniel said this pasta tasted like egg yolk. He likes eggs, so I wondered why this was a bad thing. Eating another piece plain as I packed up the leftovers, I decided that it tastes like the yolk of a hard-boiled egg that has gotten that greenish-black surface on the yolk–not repulsive, but not ideal. Daniel also disliked the texture–“gritty and mushy”–and I found that the texture was worse once it got cold or was reheated, compared to when it was freshly cooked.
Lydia, age 5, wanted to eat each pasta and rice separately from the steamed veggies (which she dipped in ketchup) and some raw bell pepper; she did not eat the olive oil sauce at all, this time. (I put a little butter on her pasta to get some fat into her meal.) She did not like this pasta and refused to eat more than 2 pieces.
The pretty red color fades dramatically when you cook it. Some of it went into the water, which turned orange and murky. I noticed that some foam formed on top of the water, similar to what you see when cooking intact red lentils.
Ancient Harvest Corn & Quinoa Rotini
Everybody liked this one. It’s thicker than typical rotini and has a lot of body, even after the maximum cook time of 9 minutes. It tastes much like wheat pasta, maybe a little “warmer” or “more roasty” in a way that you wouldn’t recognize as corn if you didn’t know. It reminded me of the subtle difference between Cheerios, which contain a little corn, and other O’s cereals that are made with oats only.
Here are step-by-step photos of assembling a bowl of pasta salad, using Ancient Harvest rotini.
Daniel said these noodles taste like egg noodles, in a good way. We think they’d work well in kugel, stroganoff, or other meals typically made with egg noodles–great for vegans or people allergic to eggs.
Lydia ate these up and asked for more!
Brown Rice in Pasta Salad Recipe
I cooked organic, short-grain brown rice. Knowing that it would take a long time to get soft enough to lose what we describe as “that exoskeleton texture,” I put 1/2 cup of brown rice in 3 cups of water and started boiling it before my coffee break before meal prep; it took almost an hour to cook.
I chopped up my broccoli and cauliflower with my fork and mixed everything together in my bowl to get the rice thoroughly coated with the yeast flakes and oil. Still, we felt this recipe doesn’t work well with brown rice and probably wouldn’t be any better with white rice. The overall consistency is just wrong–you want bite-size pieces of pasta, not little grains–and the rice doesn’t seem to absorb the sauce at all.
Lydia took a tiny taste of the brown rice and asked for soy sauce and seaweed; then she ate it!
Explore Cuisine Organic Black Bean Spaghetti
This stuff smells like gerbil chow when it’s raw and smells like Play-Doh when it’s cooked–but it hardly tastes like anything at all! Weird. It also has a sort of bouncy texture, “like chewing rubber bands, but then after a few seconds they dissolve,” as 14-year-old Nicholas put it.
That sounds very negative, but all four members of my family agreed that this is an acceptable kind of pasta. We think Sunflower Pasta Salad is not the best use for it because it’s so thin and twisty; this recipe really works better with a more chunky pasta.
We later found that Explore Cuisine Organic Black Bean Spaghetti works well in place of soba noodles in an Asian-style noodle bowl with spicy peanut sauce. The noodles are very similar in size and color to soba, and they cook super quickly: just 4 minutes! Soba is made of buckwheat, which is gluten-free, but many brands also include some regular wheat–so black bean spaghetti could be a good alternative for people on a GF diet.
Lydia asked for seconds of this pasta, which feels like a little victory to me: For about a year now, she’s been saying, “I don’t like beans,” and we stopped insisting that she eat them because she sometimes said, “They make my tummy hurt,” which sounded like a possible allergy or intolerance…so I was curious how she’d feel about foods made from beans that don’t look like beans. She didn’t like any of the others, but she did like this one!
Banza Cavatappi Made from Chickpeas
Among the GF pasta we tried, this is the only one whose main ingredient Nicholas was able to identify easily. It really tastes like chickpeas, especially if you eat it plain. That’s not a bad thing if you like plain unsalted chickpeas or if you add seasonings similar to your favorite chickpea dish–if the texture works for you.
At the minimum cook time of 9 minutes, this pasta got a bit soggy, and reheated leftovers were even wetter. Lydia took one nibble and decided she did not even want this stuff on her plate–she was moving one noodle at a time onto the table until I stopped her!
In the pasta salad, though, this pasta worked well enough. I kind of forgot I was eating anything other than our usual pasta. Its flavor is compatible with my olive oil sauce, I think, but nobody else in the family agreed enough to eat much of it.
Oddly, despite the dominant flavor, this pasta is the only one that has any ingredients other than the obvious: in addition to chickpeas, it contains tapioca, pea protein, and xanthan gum.
Cannellini Beans for Pasta Salad
Unlike brown rice, this option is very quick and easy to prepare–just drain and rinse the canned beans! But beans are even less expensive if you buy dry beans and cook them yourself (try Katie’s Instant Pot method!) and then you won’t be exposed to the chemicals from the can lining.
Sunflower Pasta Salad made with cannellini beans isn’t anything like eating a pasta dish, but it does taste good. The herbs I used (basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, rosemary) give a vaguely Italian flavor that works very well with this variety of beans. The sunflower seeds are a nice counterpoint to the soft beans.
Is Gluten-Free Pasta Nutritious?
Remember how I said Sunflower Pasta Salad has 10 grams of protein per serving? That’s with whole-wheat pasta. Three of the four GF pasta varieties we tried have more protein than whole-wheat, even before you add nutritional yeast flakes and sunflower seeds! Cannellini beans are similar in protein to whole-wheat pasta (7g per serving), while brown rice and the Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta have only 4g.
Tolerant red lentil pasta and Banza chickpea pasta have 50% of the Daily Value of iron. Explore Cuisine black bean pasta has 30%, cannellini beans 15%, Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta 10%, whole-wheat pasta 8%, and brown rice only 6%.
Tolerant red lentil pasta and Explore Cuisine black bean pasta exceed 40% of the Daily Value of fiber. When you add vegetables, you could get a whole day’s fiber in one meal! Cannellini beans, Banza chickpea pasta, and whole-wheat pasta each have 25-30% of a day’s fiber. Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta has a little more fiber than brown rice, but neither is much better than white-flour pasta’s 10%.
All of these pasta alternatives are similar in calories to whole-wheat or white pasta.
None of the labels lists all of the nutrients a food might contain (there isn’t space!) but here are some highlights:
- Tolerant red lentil pasta is a good source of folate, riboflavin, and thiamin (all found in whole-wheat pasta and brown rice) and also Vitamin B6.
- Explore Cuisine black bean pasta has 30% of your daily potassium–more than the 10% in cannellini beans.
- Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta has zero calcium, whereas all the other pasta alternatives (and whole-wheat or white pasta) have 4% to 15% of the Daily Value–Tolerant red lentil has the most.
Ancient Harvest corn-quinoa pasta, our favorite for taste and texture, turns out to not be very nutritious. Bummer!
Now I have 4 half-full boxes of gluten-free pasta to use up. For the next potluck, I’ll cook them all together for a GF super medley pasta salad!
P.S. Are you wondering what were the original two toppings that weren’t so healthy? Hidden Valley Ranch dressing and canned fried onions! To our straight-out-of-college tastebuds, that was a killer combo of flavors, SO GOOD!! (Now we can kind of taste the chemicals and soybean oil….)
That recipe was our “gateway drug” to meals that are half vegetables, like Spam’s Spinach-ghetti, that made it possible for us to learn to use a CSA farm share and to eat our veggies year-round! If you’re trying to coax a junk-food-loving young person into home cooking, try the ranch-and-fried-onions approach for an appealing, very easy, but veggie-laden meal.