Southwestern Chicken Pasta Salad

I'm picky about my pasta salads. I don't like heavy dressings, I don't like when you can't tell what the ingredients are, and I don't like when they are too sweet or contain tuna. These are my pasta salad rules. You could break maybe one of these rules and I might eat it, but two or more, forget about it. Life's too short to spend picking tuna out of a white, sloppy mess of mushy pasta and unrecognizable veggies. This salad breaks none of them, and I love it for that. Instead of plain mayo it uses a white BBQ sauce and there are plenty of colorful vegetables that lend taste, crunch and visual appeal. It's perfect for that one last fall get together before we all hibernate inside for the winter.

The white BBQ sauce consists of mayo, cider vinegar, horseradish, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. I had my doubts the first time I made this because I had a pretty bad experience at a reward dinner in high school for a scholarship or something that involved a salad made entirely of horseradish. That may be an exaggeration, but I do remember looking at my mom with a bright red face and tears in the corners of my eyes and seeing that she looked exactly the same. I don't think it was much of a reward at all. Anyway, the horseradish and cayenne pepper just add a little kick to the salad and not much more. In all, the sauce is not overpowering so don't let it scare you. It's also easy to make. You just whisk it together while you are boiling your pasta, and then start chopping veggies. There are so many colors in this salad, it's not wonder that I love it. Chop a yellow bell pepper, red bell pepper, red onion (I only had white on hand when I took this picture) a jalepeno and cilantro.

When the pasta is done cooking, drain it thoroughly and either cool it in the fridge for 30 minutes or rinse it under cold water until it is cold. Or both. Just let it cool down before adding the BBQ sauce, chicken and veggies. The recipe suggests saving some of the pasta cooking water to thin out the BBQ sauce. I nearly always forget to save some cooking water, but I do thin out the BBQ sauce with tap water. Stir to combine, and refrigerate until time to serve. This salad tastes better after sitting for a couple hours in the fridge, and tastes good even a couple days later. The sauce will get soaked up by the pasta but it still tastes good. If you don't like this, make a little extra sauce to add right before serving.

Southwestern Chicken Pasta Salad

1 pound corkscrew pasta
1 cup frozen corn
2 cups shredded grilled chicken
1/2 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 small red onion, minced
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced (leave the seeds if you want it spicier)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons lime juice
~1 cup White BBQ Sauce (below)

Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large pot. Add one tablespoon salt and pasta and cook until nearly tender, about 8 minutes. Add corn and cook one minute more. Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water, then drain pasta and corn. Transfer pasta and corn to large bowl and refrigerate until completely cooled, at least 30 minutes.

Stir in chicken, beans, bell peppers, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice, and sauce. Add reserved pasta cooking water. 1 tablespoon at a time, until sauce is loose. Season with salt and pepper. Serve. Salad can be refrigerated in airtight container for up to 2 days. Check consistency and seasonings before serving.

White BBQ Sauce
(One batch equals ~1 cup)

3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Refrigerate sauce in airtight container for at least one hour or up to 2 days.
Recipe source: Cooks Country June/July 2006

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