The Salty Additions That Star In Ina Garten's Tomato Feta Pasta Salad

Ina Garten's tomato feta pasta salad recipe is full of all the good stuff we love in a hot dish — tomatoes, noodles, feta cheese, and olive oil — but in a cold bowl perfect for summer. The Barefoot Contessa uses a pound of ripe tomatoes to provide freshness, but the real heart of the pasta salad comes from the yummy salty ingredients: black olives, feta cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. True to Garten's recipes, the olives and cheese (and olive oil) must be good quality, she notes in her recipe.

But that's not all — in the dressing, she includes more sun-dried tomatoes, salt, capers, and a whole cup of grated Parmesan. It's a flavor bomb, but the salty tastes are balanced out by fresh and acidic ingredients like red wine vinegar, garlic, black pepper, and a cup of chopped parsley. Everything goes straight in the food processor, before being poured on top of the pasta salad. Since the feta is diced into cubes, it goes on last so it doesn't crumble up while everything is being stirred. 

Salty ingredients bring the flavor to pasta salad

So why does the Barefoot Contessa add so many salty ingredients to her dish? "The thing about pasta salad I've learned over the years is that most of them are so boring," Garten says in a Food Network YouTube video where she makes her tomato feta version. "They don't really have any flavor." Most of the ingredients in her dish are based around providing optimal flavor: In addition to being salty, sun-dried tomatoes have an intense tomato taste, olives are slightly sweet, and everything is tossed together while the noodles are still warm so they absorb maximum flavor. In fact, that's a general rule to follow for making the tastiest pasta salad — noodles are much more absorbent when they're warm, so salt the water when you're cooking them and add at least part of the dressing before they cool down.

While Garten's recipe is a delicious balance of salty, sweet, fresh, and briny flavors, you can experiment with your own salty additions to amp up a bowl of pasta salad. Chopped meats like salami, prosciutto, sopressata, and bacon will add a little protein, along with canned ingredients like tuna, chicken, and sardines. And of course, you can use cheese toppings like mozzarella, goat cheese, cotija, Asiago, and Manchego in your own dish instead of the feta and Parmesan Garten incorporates here. Just make sure you also include plenty of fresh ingredients to create a nicely balanced dish.