In college, you hit a bunch of milestones that make you feel like you’re growing up. Signing your first apartment lease. Traveling on your own. Graduating with a degree.
But I’ve always felt that it’s not the big things that make me feel like I’m on my way toward adulthood as it is the little things, the ones that your parents always did for you, like taking your fancy clothes to the dry cleaner or using Draino and boiling water to fix your sink.
A recent “Oh my gosh, I might sort of be a kind of adult” moment? Making my mom’s pasta salad, a delicious combination of chicken, pasta, grapes and cashews coated in a semi-sweet dressing.
This recipe has been in my family for about 13 years now, passed along from a wonderful neighbor, and it’s going to be a favorite for years to come. A few times a year, Dad grills some extra chicken, Mom makes pasta salad, and we eat little else until it’s gone. I find myself justifying eating it for every meal. Chicken and pasta make it dinner, right? Cold chicken and pasta makes a good lunch, yes? And it’s got grapes, which makes it perfectly acceptable for breakfast, you know?
Breaking from my baking streak, I decided that for my end-of-the-year work potluck, Mom’s pasta salad was the way to go. She sent me the recipe and answered my texts while I worked in the kitchen, and in the end, I had that delicious pasta salad I can never get enough of, made all on my own. #adult.
Keep an eye on me: Now that I know how easy it is to make, I might make it every week.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Start by cooking the pasta — a whole box! — according to the directions on the box. Mom recommends penne, but we’ve successfully used bow-ties in the past, too. When it’s done, drain it and rinse it with cold water. The pasta might be sticky at this point, Mom says, but don’t worry — the dressing will fix that.
While the pasta’s cooking, you can chop up your chicken and grapes. You want red seedless grapes, and you’ll cut each one in half. For the chicken, any kind of chicken breast works, but we love using grilled. Cut it into cubes about the sizes of dice, maybe a little bigger — whatever you prefer!
Lazy cook tip: If you don’t want to cook chicken (or if, like me, you’re incapable of cooking chicken — next on my list of things to learn!), Oscar Meyer sells pre-cooked chicken chunks/strips, like you would use to top a salad. You can find it in the grocery store near all the other pre-sliced meats. Buy two to get just the right amount of chicken for this recipe.
Next, in a small bowl, use a whisk to mix your mayo, vinegar, salt, sugar and pepper. It’ll be kind of gross-looking and lumpy at first…
but give it time and it will smooth out, just like salad dressing.
Once your pasta has cooled down from being cooked, combine it with the chicken, grapes and cashews in the biggest bowl you have — give yourself plenty of room to stir in the dressing!
A note on the cashews: If you’re not interested in having cashews, you can leave them out and still have a delicious salad. My mom likes that they add a saltiness to the sweetness created by the dressing; I don’t like them and usually eat around them. For this batch, made for friends who aren’t as picky of eaters as I am, I compromised and halved the amount called for.
Pour the dressing over the top and gently mix it in, until everything is evenly coated. Finally, important: pop it in the fridge and chill it for a few times before serving. I found that when I tasted the salad right after I mixed everything, the vinegar flavor was overwhelming; after a few hours in the fridge, all the flavors mellowed out and tasted just right.
That’s it! I hope you enjoy this salad as much as I do. Thanks for teaching me how to make it, Mom!
Chicken/Grape/Cashew Pasta Salad
- 1 package pasta — penne, bow tie or similar
- 4 cooked chicken breasts — cubed
- 2 cups halved red, seedless grapes
- 2 cups cashews
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp. vinegar — Mom and I recommend white balsamic
- About ¾ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. white sugar
- ¼ tsp pepper
- Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Drain, rinse with cold water and set aside. Don’t panic if the pasta is sticky; the dressing will fix that.
- If you haven’t done so yet, cut your grapes in half and cut your chicken into cubes (about die-sized).
- In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, sugar and pepper until smooth, like salad dressing.
- Once pasta has cooled, in a very large bowl, combine pasta, chicken, grapes and cashews.
- Pour the dressing over the top and stir gently until everything is evenly coated.
- Cover and refrigerate for a few hours before eating. Best served cold.