Queenie Cooks: Queenie’s Pasta Crunch Salad

By Terry Harris

After years of liking the idea of having a salad as a meal, but not necessarily the reality, this delightful concoction of wonderful, fresh flavors recently became a favorite for lunches, dinners, entertaining, and it’s perfect for a festive buffet!

With the holidays upon us, I think we’re often looking for something special (and light!) to balance out all the traditional hams and turkeys and dressings and gravies and desserts on the menu. If you’re in the market for something like that, this might just become your favorite, too! 

One of the best things about this recipe is that it looks complex, but preparation couldn’t be simpler. If you can squeeze a lemon, slice an apple, and chop a little celery, you’ve got it made. In fact, the apple and celery are the only ingredients you actually have to prepare except the super-simple dressing, and that takes five minutes, tops. Really! 

In spite of the name, pasta is not the star of Queenie’s Pasta Crunch Salad. The stars are all the other delicious, colorful things with it. The little pasta shells are cooked, chilled, and marinated in a homemade sweet-tart poppyseed dressing. The crunchy part comes in when you add the crisp, cool bites of Granny Smith apple and celery and walnuts to the baby spinach, dried cranberries and mandarin orange slices. And when you sprinkle all that with feta cheese – TA DA - you have one of my top five favorite dishes of all time – and most-requested recipes.

Ordinarily I think much of the fun of cooking is in trying new variations on a recipe. But this honestly is so wonderful just as it is that I have done very little further experimentation. I switched the walnuts for pecans once, and that I liked. Substituting a sweeter variety of apple for the Granny Smith wasn’t as successful. I think it needs that little bit of tartness.  As for the dressing, although I am generally a fan of a more savory taste, for this I sometimes even add a little additional sugar to mellow out the twang of the vinegars a bit more.

And let me just say that the finished product, in addition to making a stunning presentation, is so lovely and light and tasty and colorful that it’s perfect for anything from a simple family brunch to a lavish reception. Add some grilled chicken and a baguette and you have a complete meal sure to delight even the pickiest palate.

This is also perfect for holiday travel “over the river and through the woods,” or to wherever “Grandmother’s house” may be.  Because what little preparation there is you can quickly do just before leaving home and then breeze in with the most colorful, delicious thing on the menu.  And if Grandma’s house is a bit farther away, just transport the individual ingredients in little containers (or plastic bags), and then when you arrive, toss them together and accept accolades!

Like most salads, this is best when prepared just before serving.  But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that that’s not absolutely necessary when I made two huge punch bowls full to serve 100 guests at a theatre VIP event.  Guests loved it so much that they came back for third and even fourth helpings, but I still had just a little left over.  I expected that the spinach would get soggy, but the leftover salad it tasted so good that I couldn’t bear to throw out that last bit, so I stuck it in the refrigerator and hoped for the best. Twenty-four hours later, it was still delicious!

So, like I said, at this time of year when you’re looking for something new and wonderful to bring to family holiday meals, you just may start a whole new family tradition with this light, colorful, absolutely over-the-top delicious dish! As for the name, while I didn’t originate this entire recipe, I did tweak it enough to make it my own, and Queenie is the name my Daddy called me – well, since I was a little girl. So whenever I bake cakes or prepare favorite dishes for folks – especially around the holidays – I like to tack on that pet name. It makes me smile. Just like I hope this salad makes you and your family and friends smile! Enjoy!

QUEENIE’S CRUNCHY PASTA SALAD

Makes six side salads

5 ounces fresh baby spinach  

3/4 C celery, chopped 

3/4 C dried cranberries 

1 can (15 ounces) mandarin oranges, drained 

1 large Granny Smith Apple 

1 ½ C small, shell pasta (uncooked)  

1 tsp lemon juice 

1/3 C walnuts (or pecans) 

Feta cheese 

2 Tbsp white wine vinegar 

2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar 

4 Tbsp vegetable oil 

2-4 Tbsp white sugar (to taste) 

1/8 tsp: paprika, onion powder 

1 tsp poppyseeds 

Cook pasta according to package directions.  Combine oil, 2 vinegars, sugar, paprika, and onion powder in blender or food processor and pulse or blend for about 10 seconds. Stir in poppyseeds. Drain pasta. Immediately toss a few tablespoons of the dressing with the pasta and chill thoroughly.

Combine spinach and celery in large bowl and add cranberries and mandarin oranges. Thinly slice apple, halve the slices, toss with lemon juice and add to salad.   

Pour remaining dressing over salad and toss. Add completely cooled pasta and toss. Top with walnuts (or pecans) and feta cheese.