For someone who is patently terrified of all the offerings in the deli case pasta salad universe — the tri-colore, mayo-slicked, sugar-sweetened, canned tuna-flecked, curry powder-ed, and dotted with green peppers, raisins or ohgodboth — I sure spend a spectacular amount of each summer trying to come up with cold pasta preparations I’d find agreeable. I know that there’s one out there I could love and could love me back, but although a few attempts have gotten me closer, and even temporarily sated, my perfect picnic pasta salad eluded me.
Late last summer, I began forming an idea of how to make this, a pasta salad that would be loud, punchy and full of texture where others are mellow and limp. My notes are adamant about a well-toasted crunch, such as pine nuts, a good salty crumbled cheese, like ricotta salata or feta, chopped black olives, such as those oil-cured ones I was slowly developing an affection for, and pasta taken off the stove when it’s an aggressive al dente, even two minutes before tender “doneness” instead of one, so that no matter how long it soaks in dressing, it does not collapse. But I got stuck on the last ingredient, because what I really wanted in there was not those “sun-dried” tomatoes you find in dry-packs and jars, but these wondrously slow-baked oven tomatoes, all chewy, tart and intense.