This Creamy Pesto Pasta Salad is everything you always wished your cookout side dish could be. It’s loaded up with flavorful ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, peppery arugula, and fresh mozzarella balls, and tossed in a creamy pesto dressing that will make your mouth water just thinking about it.
I first made this recipe as a way to welcome summer, and now I’m updating it years later, just before Labor Day, as a way to close summer out. Because really there’s nothing that will make you happier all season long, year-over-year, than an absolutely perfect pasta salad. And let me tell you, this recipe fits the bill.
I’m definitely not a pasta salad purist– I’ll throw pretty much anything in with pasta and eagerly gobble it down– but there’s something satisfying about still getting those Italian flavors that you’re used to in a traditional pasta salad, just in a whole new way. Instead of cured meats and Italian vinaigrette, here we’re opting for less popular (but still delicious) mix-ins like sun-dried tomatoes and a homemade, creamy pesto dressing. Not to worry, there’s still plenty of cheese– in fact, we’ve got both shaved parmesan and mozzarella balls in there. But it’s just a little different, in the most exciting of ways.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PESTO DRESSING
I could pretend that it was all the mix-ins that make the magic happen here, and I won’t lie, they definitely do help. But the real star of the show is that Creamy Pesto Dressing. You guys. It’s dangerously good.
Here’s how it works.
I use my homemade pesto recipe (which is looooaded up with garlic, parmesan, basil, and olive oil) as a base, which is awesome because it only takes a few minutes to whip together. But if you don’t have the ingredients or you just want to skip a few steps, you can use store-bought pesto as well. No one will tattle on ya.
To turn it into the creamy pesto dressing, all I do is add mayo and buttermilk– sort of like what you’d expect if making a ranch dressing. Just slowly stream the buttermilk in as you whisk until you get to a pourable consistency. In combination with the oil and herbs, you get a flavor-packed, well-rounded dressing.
That’s kind of a mild way to put it. You get a kick-ass dressing, if we’re putting it frankly.
I could bathe in the stuff. Or, you know, just eat it. Lots of it.
THE PASTA SALAD MIX-INS
I’ve been gloating about the pesto dressing for a while now, but you can’t forget the mix-in ingredients:
- Sun-dried Tomatoes
- Mozzarella Pearls
- White Beans
- Pine Nuts
…which are all tossed in with orrechiette pasta (and of course that dressing that I keep talking about).
The orrechiette pasta (also known as “little ears”) will cradle the smaller ingredients, making it easier to get a little bit of everything in every bite.
BUT YOU CAN GET CREATIVE WITH IT
Don’t feel like you can’t change things up in this recipe. If you want to use more traditional pasta salad ingredients, be my guest. If you wanna get wild with your mix-ins, go to town. The world is your oyster. Or pasta salad. Oyster flavored pasta salad? I mean, if that’s what you’re into. But here are some better suggestions:
MORE MIX-IN INSPIRATION
- Fun Pasta Shapes Make For Tasty Pasta Salads: Like I mentioned before, the great thing about orecchiette is that some of the smaller ingredients (like the white beans) will nuzzle themselves right into the pasta. But other fun shaped pastas (like swirly pasta or tubes) will also capture some of the mix-ins and allow that pesto dressing to cling on to everything nicely.
- Not a Vegetarian?: If you want to make this a meaty recipe, feel free to go wild with it. Cured meats like salami and pepperoni work great, as do leaner proteins like chunks of grilled chicken.
- Add More Green: More green ingredients (think asparagus, peas, or even avocado) would all go great in this recipe!
- Use Creative Pestos: Consider adding different ingredients to your base pesto to switch things up. Using other leafy greens instead of basil, or different nuts instead of pine nuts, or even just throwing in some additional flavor boosters (like lemon juice or roasted red peppers) can make things extra interesting.
- 1 1/2 cups homemade pesto (or store-bought!)
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup buttermilk, or as needed
- 8 ounces orecchiette pasta, cooked to al dente
- 1 15 ounce can cannelloni beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups baby arugula
- ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
- 1 cup sun-dried tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cups mozzarella pearls
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved
- Combine the pesto and mayonnaise in a medium-sized bowl. Whisk in the buttermilk, a bit at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Toss the cooled pasta with cannelloni beans, arugula, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella pearls, and Parmesan. Drizzle with the creamy pesto dressing and toss again. Refrigerate until ready to serve.