I’ve described the limited pasta choices available when I was a child. Each had its own prescribed use. The one that was allowed to cross boundaries was elbow macaroni: macaroni and cheese, but also acceptable in macaroni salad. The preferred noodle for the latter, though was this. It’s now known as “ditalini.” In those years we only knew it generically as macaroni, and its uses were two: during summer months in macaroni salad, or dyed with food coloring and strung on thread to make necklaces that we brought home from school as Mother’s Day gifts.
The salad ingredients were as simple as they were unvarying: cooked and cooled macaroni, celery, onions (which I was very adept at eating around), and green bell peppers, the only kind/color I knew existed until I moved to California many, many years later. Dressing? Mayonnaise, and plenty of it. Seasonings? Salt and pepper, the more pepper the better. My mother couldn’t get enough of it. It was years before I could even think of seasoning food with it.
Still, I loved macaroni salad. It meant summer. East coast summers were swelteringly hot, and you could practically wring humidity from the air before your face. Macaroni salad was always served as a side to hot dogs or hamburgers that our father grilled outside, over charcoal of course. Either, paired with that cold, creamy salad with bits of crunch, are among my happiest summer memories, even given the occasional onion that slipped through. We’re having a similar summer here and now, albeit with less humidity. It’s time to give the old dear a facelift.
I decided to adapt the reincarnation to more of an entrée salad, be it for lunch or dinner. I honestly had to search the pasta section of the grocery store to find ditalini. As many brands of different pasta shapes that are commonly available in grocery stores everywhere now, there was exactly one of ditalini: American Beauty. To add to it, I grilled some chicken thighs and some thick slices of onion; grilling deepens and sweetens an onion’s flavor. Also into the mix went some pineapple tidbits, an orange bell for its bright color, celery of course, and some fresh tarragon. I made an actual dressing with the mayo (and measured it with a lighter hand), adding some lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and a few dashes of Worstershire Sauce. What would my mother have thought of it? I have no idea (though I have a very good idea what she’d have thought of the red pepper flakes). I’d love to know what you think of it.
NEW AGE MACARONI SALAD
Makes enough for several servings
1 yellow onion, halved, peeled, 1/2″ slices
4 chicken thighs or 2 chicken breasts, bone-in or boneless
Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper
1 pound ditalini or elbow macaroni, cooked, drained, cooled in cold water
4 ribs celery, 1/4″ dice
1 orange or red bell pepper, 1/4″ dice
15 ounce can pineapple tidbits, drained
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, minced
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
12 grinds of pepper
2 pinches red pepper flakes
1 cup mayonnaise
Juice of 1 lemon
1 generous tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Worstershire Sauce
- Light a charcoal fire (my preference), or start a propane grill. While the fire burns down, film the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. Set the onion slices in it and turn them over, seasoning both sides with salt and pepper. Remove them to a baking sheet. Do the same with the chicken pieces. Also remove them to the baking sheet.
- When the fire is ready, arrange the onion slices and the chicken pieces on the grate. The onions will clearly be done sooner than the chicken. Grill the onion slices for about 4 minutes per side, turning them carefully, though honestly, if a few pieces slip into the fire, the flavor of everything being grilled will only be that much better. When done, remove them to a clean platter.
- Continue grilling the chicken pieces until done. Poke them with a fork or knife; when the juices run clear, the meat is done. Remove them to the platter. Allow the chicken and onions to cool while you cook and cool the pasta and prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, about 10 minutes. When done, strain through a colander then return it to the pot in which you cooked it. Run cold water into the pot, tossing the macaroni with your hands until no residual heat remains, then drain it again. Transfer it to a large salad or mixing bowl.
- Add the celery, bell pepper, pineapple, and tarragon to the bowl. Strip the chicken from the bones, and dice it up. Chop the onions. Add both to the bowl. Toss all the ingredients together with a large spoon.
- Whisk the dressing ingredients together. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to distribute it throughout. Stir in the salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, then taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary.
- In hot weather, it’s best to serve mayonnaise-based salads in small quantities, with the larger amount refrigerated. To serve this salad, spoon some into a bowl that you can set inside a larger bowl filled with ice and a small amount of water. Refill the salad bowl with cold salad as often as you need to, and also keep an eye on the ice.