Few things say summer more than easy pasta salad and pesto. And when they’re paired together, they are fantastic for side dish or a filling vegetarian main dish. You can’t go wrong with classic Italian ingredients like tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.
This roasted tomato pesto pasta salad is a no-mayo pasta salad that’s light, bright and pleasantly punchy and acidic thanks to the tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. It’s perfect for a picnic or potluck.
Even though they are roasted, the combination of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil might make you want to call it a Caprese pasta salad. Of course, that is totally fine! This recipe is not shy about crediting it as inspiration.
Making The Best Vegetarian Pasta Salad
A really good pasta salad is all about balance. Too often they go overboard on noodles and do not have enough vegetables, fresh herbs and other elements. Be sure that you get a bite of something other than pasta in each forkful. It’s a very simple rule that keeps things more interesting.
Be thoughtful about your dressing. It’s worth whisking together your own mixture to dress the salad. Remember that it will be coating every single thing in that serving bowl, so it’s very important.
Always taste and adjust your seasonings as needed. Food served cold tends to need more salt and pepper than dishes that are warm or hot. Take a few bites and sprinkle in more until it suits your taste. When you have the right amount, the flavors of the salad will come alive. It will be so much more than just salt.
The Magic of Pesto
I just wrote my version of a love letter to my favorite sauce that’s basically a how to make pesto tutorial. As challenging as it was to control my gushing, my hope is that you will be convinced that pesto is the ultimate recipe hack. A few spoons into dressing, pasta or grains, and you have the ultimate flavor boost.
There’s just something about a pesto salad that feels incredibly appropriate to the season and to the moment. This dish and others may have you convinced to keep jar on-hand in the fridge at all times. You can make it in a food processor or blender. It’s so simple.
Ingredients & Substitutions
This is what you need:
Tomatoes: Small tomatoes are best, so you can use either grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes. It doesn’t matter if they are all red or a rainbow of colors including yellow and orange. The point of roasting is to bring out their intense flavor.
Garlic: The recipe calls for 6 cloves. This may sound like a lot, but roasted garlic is more mellow than raw. The cloves roast with the tomatoes, and then they are incorporated into the pesto dressing.
Pasta: I love how curly cavatappi pasta hugs the tomatoes and mozzarella. And it does a great job picking up the pesto. If you can’t find this shape, use fusilli, rotini, penne or farfalle. Stick with short pasta.
Olive oil is generously poured into the pan where the tomatoes roast. That mixture of oil, vinegar and tomato juices is used in the dressing. Make sure it’s extra virgin olive oil.
Balsamic vinegar: For a little acidity and tang, I add a splash of balsamic vinegar to the marinade for the tomatoes.
Pesto: A couple tablespoons of pesto give the pasta salad a wonderfully herby taste. Of course, I recommend homemade basil pesto sauce. If you do buy it at the grocery, look for it in the refrigerated section rather than jarred in the Italian food aisle because it will taste fresher.
Mozzarella: Torn fresh mozzarella is always a good choice with tomatoes and basil.
Pine nuts, lightly toasted, give the pasta salad a little crunch. You can also use chopped walnuts.
Basil: To supplement the pesto, I also stir in torn fresh basil leaves.
Chives: For light onion flavor, I include minced chives with the basil.
Salt & pepper: The tomatoes and garlic are seasoned with salt and pepper before they roast in the oven, but you may need to add a little more once you taste the final dish.
How To Make Roasted Tomato Pesto Pasta Salad
Toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet in a 375-degree F oven.
Roast the tomatoes. Put the tomatoes and garlic in a rectangular baking pan (13” x 9”). Then stir in the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes until they are wrinkled but still juicy, about 40-45 minutes.
Cook the pasta until al dente according to package directions in a large pot of salted water. Rinse the pasta with cold water in a colander. Then put the pasta in a large bowl. Do this while the tomatoes are in the oven.
Spoon the roasted tomatoes into the pasta.
Make the dressing. In a small bowl, squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins and mash them into the pesto. Whisk in the olive oil and tomato juices from the baking pan.
Stir the dressing into the pasta with the nuts, basil, chives and mozzarella.
Taste the pasta salad and add more salt and pepper as needed.
Pasta Salad Add-Ins
Even though this pesto pasta salad already has plenty going on, you can add extra ingredients. Here are a few ideas:
Roasted red peppers
Corn (grilled or roasted)
Pitted Kalamata olives
Baby arugula or spinach
Protein such as chicken or shrimp
Serving & Leftovers
You can serve the pasta salad warm, at room temperature or chilled. It’s good pretty much any which way. You will just need to taste and adjust the seasonings.
Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 3 days.
Spread the pine nuts on a sheet pan. Toast in the oven until they turn golden brown, about 5-7 minutes.
In a rectangular baking dish, combine the tomatoes and garlic. Stir in the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Roast for 40-45 minutes until the tomatoes have deepened in color and have slightly wrinkled.
While the tomatoes and garlic are roasting, cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente according to package instructions. Drain the pasta and rinse in cold water in a colander. Put the pasta in a large bowl.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the roasted tomatoes to the bowl with the pasta.
In small bowl, squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins and mash the garlic into the pesto. Stir in the olive oil and the tomato juices from the roasting pan.
Pour the dressing over the pasta and stir in the basil, chives, mozzarella and pine nuts.
Season to taste and add salt and pepper as needed.