Bagged Lunch Ideas: Mediterranean Whole Wheat Pasta Salad with Basil Vinaigrette

I served a version of this pasta salad at the very first dinner party I ever hosted. I was 16.

I don't remember the exact occasion, but I'd invited a group of my nerdy high school friends over and we feasted on a Mediterranean inspired spread of homemade roasted garlic hummus, tzatziki, balsamic chicken flat-bread pizzas, bruschetta, crudite, and this salad. For dessert I made bread pudding with butterscotch sauce (two things I'd been obsessed with at that point in my life). There may have also been some Arbor Mist served, but we'll just forget about that part.

I remember that this salad was one of my favorites of all the dishes, and that I made so much of it that my family and I ate the leftovers for the rest of the week. It's one of those incredible dishes that just seems to get better by the day, as the pasta and cheese absorb more and more of the tangy fresh basil vinaigrette.

This is a great salad for lunch; you can keep it as-is or add some grilled chicken or cooked shrimp to round it out. It's also easy to adapt depending on the season. I've made it with sun-dried tomatoes in the winter and cherry tomatoes in the summer. I've added steamed broccoli florets when I had some in the fridge. You can play around with the cheeses or use tricolor rotini to make it a little more festive.

This also make a great salad for a picnic or outdoor barbecue since it's oil-based and will keep at room temperature for several hours.

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Mediterranean Whole Wheat Pasta Salad with Basil Vinaigrette

12 oz whole wheat rotini (or other small whole wheat pasta such as penne)
1 cup roughly chopped kalamata olives (preferably not canned)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup feta cheese, diced
1 cup fresh mozzarella pearls, drained (or diced fresh mozzarella)
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled
zest of one whole lemon
2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and ripped off the stems
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt
Black pepper

Cook the pasta according to box directions until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool to the touch. Drain and place in a large bowl.

Add the olives, bell pepper, feta, mozzarella, and grape tomatoes to the pasta and mix until evenly distributed.

In a blender or food processor, combine the vinegar, olive oil, garlic cloves, lemon zest, basil, and sugar. Process until smooth and emulsified (it will look almost a little bit creamy.

Pour the dressing into the salad and toss well to coat. Season with kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Let chill for at least 3 hours before serving (can be made up to 2 days in advance; will keep well in the fridge for about a week).

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