Sugar Snap Pea & Tortellini Pasta Salad

Crunchy sugar snap peas counterbalance creamy cheese tortellini while a white balsamic vinegar dressing adds the right amount of tang.

Did your parents have to tell you to "eat your peas" before they'd excuse you from the table?

Mine didn't.

Peas made weekly appearances in our house. Before frozen vegetables were the norm, Mom would often serve us the canned variety piping hot with lots of butter, salt and pepper. Sometimes, she'd add tomato sauce the way my grandmother made them for her as a child. Mom would also dot our Mexican red rice with the little green orbs. And her monthly stir-fries always had Chinese snow peas. However she used them, I loved them.

Cooking for myself as an adult, I moved from canned peas to their frozen counterparts. And once I discovered the joy of fresh English shelling peas, I had another reason to look forward to summer.

In my 30s, a friend introduced me to sugar snap peas. Crisp, crunchy, and sweet with no need to shell, they quickly became my favorite snack to enjoy raw straight out of the package or with a bit of homemade lemony hummus on the side to dip them in. But they're also great in recipes.

I've been making this Sugar Snap Peas & Tortellini Pasta Salad for years, and it's always one of the first things to disappear on a buffet table. It's super simple and relatively healthy. The star ingredient for me is the sugar snap peas. Grape tomatoes, tortellini pasta, ribbons of fresh basil, and crumbled herbed feta cheese round out the elements. A tangy white balsamic dressing ties it all together.

How to make this super simple salad

If you're looking for a weekend project, you could try making the tortellini from scratch. However, I love to use packaged fresh tortellini from the grocery store's refrigerated section for quick and easy mid-week meals. To begin, I place a pot of water on high for the tortellini. While I'm waiting for it to boil, I remove all the stems from any of the peas that still have them attached. Yes, the sugar snap pea pod is edible in its entirety, but I don't like the hard stems or the strings. Even with blanching, they are still, well, stringy. To remove them, pinch and snap the stem, carefully bend it towards you, and slowly pull it down to remove as much of the attached string as possible.

Once the water has come to a rolling boil, I add salt, stirring to dissolve. Then comes the pasta, which, because it's the fresh refrigerated variety, cooks in about 2-3 minutes. I like to keep a close eye on the pot. Fresh tortellini cooked just a bit too long will burst open. After 2 minutes, I remove the pot from the heat, drain it, give it a quick rinse, add it to a big bowl, and toss it with a drizzle of olive oil before setting it aside.

I find that blanching enhances the sweetness of sugar snap peas. Blanching is the simple process of immersing a vegetable in boiling water for a minute or two and then plunging it into an ice bath or under cold running water to stop the cooking process. This simple technique brightens the vegetable's color. Plus, the minimal cooking means only a slight loss of nutrients. After draining the sugar snap peas from the ice bath, I toss them into the bowl with the pasta. I add the naturally sweet grape tomatoes, which I keep whole, so they burst in your mouth when you bite into them.

Though you can hand tear the basil before adding it to the pasta bowl, I like to chiffonade it (thinly slice it into ribbons). To chiffonade, you stack 5 or 6 large basil leaves on top of each other, roll them up tightly then cut them into thin ribbons.

Add the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, some dijon mustard and salt and pepper to a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Finely dice the shallots, which are milder and more delicate than onion, making them easier for people to eat raw. Slightly sweet, shallots also have a very light hint of garlic without the latter's sharpness. While my knife is still in hand, I finely mince a fat clove of garlic. Add the shallots and garlic to the jar, secure the lid and give it a good shake. Pour the vinaigrette over the pasta and toss.

Lastly, I sprinkle the pasta with feta just before serving. I love this salad with a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio and some fresh crusty bread for an easy mid-week meal.

Sugar Snap Peas & Tortellini Pasta Salad

I love cheese tortellini for this dish but feel free to use one with meat. The dressing ratio is 2:1 oil to vinegar instead of the classic 3:1 because I like a more vinegary dressing. I use white balsamic vinegar for this pasta salad, primarily for aesthetic reasons, but you can use regular dark balsamic if that's what you have. Flavor-wise, it's a little sweeter than white.

Serves 4

1 (9-ounce) package refrigerated cheese tortellini
8 ounces sugar snap peas, stems and strings removed
10 grape tomatoes
5-6 large leaves of fresh basil, thinly sliced (chiffonade)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons feta cheese crumbles, herbed or plain
1 French baguette, optional to serve

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the tortellini. Cook according to the package directions, between 2 to 4 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking, add to a large bowl, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil and toss to coat.

Fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, prep a medium-size bowl with water and ice; set aside. When water is ready, add the sugar snap peas to the pot and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain the pods immediately and plunge them into the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and add them to the pasta bowl. Toss in the tomatoes and basil.

Add olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, shallots, and garlic to a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well to combine, then pour the dressing over the pasta, tossing to coat well. Sprinkle the feta over the pasta and serve with a hunk of bread on the side.

Until next time, friends …
¡Buen Provecho!