Saffron Pasta Salad Recipe

A spring pasta salad made with a vibrant red-wine and saffron vinaigrette, asparagus, and toasted whole wheat orecchiette pasta from Puglia.

Saffron Pasta Salad

Wayne had a meeting near St. Helena a while back. It's about 2 hours north of San Francisco, and as he was walking out the door I decided I'd hop in the car too. The drive is nice. Particularly if you sneak off the main roads. Yellow swatches of mustard buffer the vineyards, and wildflowers seemed to be coming out of their winter slumber here and there. After a quick stop at Bouchon Bakery, we arrived in St. Helena late in the afternoon. There are many ways to spend two hours on a drizzly day in that part of the world and I entertained myself by taking pictures, browsing shops, and sipping hot coffee. Today's recipe was inspired by a little book I picked up for $5 in a second-hand bookstore. A first edition copy of Diane Worthington's The Taste of Summer had a recipe for a pasta salad dressed with a saffron vinaigrette that caught my attention. I held off on making it until asparagus started showing up in the markets here, and it was well worth the wait.

Saffron Pasta Salad

Diane's version combined a vibrant red-wine and saffron vinaigrette with late spring produce (asparagus, fresh peas, zucchini), and orzo pasta. I did a variation using only asparagus and a toasted whole wheat orecchiette pasta from Puglia. There were no peas or zucchini at the market at the time, and everyone seemed to be out of the whole wheat orzo I normally use.

Not everyone likes whole wheat pastas - I totally get that. They can be heavy and gloppy - something I was worried about as I was draining the orecchiette. But, the strong saffron vinaigrette stood up beautifully to the pasta here - the key was letting it sit for a while after dressing it. The orecchiette I used is a bit obscure, so let me offer up a few alternative suggestions. Diane's recipe calls for orzo - I'd certainly make this again using whole wheat orzo. For those of you who want to ease your way into the whole wheat / whole grain pasta thing, I suggest going half/half, it really lightens things up while still incorporating more whole ingredients. For example:

- 1/2 whole wheat penne pasta + 1/2 regular penne pasta
- 1/2 whole wheat orzo + 1/2 regular orzo

The irritating part is that I'm also going to encourage you to cook each type of pasta in its own pot. Aside from that, lefftovers make a good lunch, and if asparagus isn't quite in season where you live I can imagine an alternative versions with either chopped kale or broccoli working well :)...

Related links:
- Revised updated edition of The Taste of Summer (Chronicle Books, June, 2000)

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Saffron Pasta Salad

I used a toasted wheat orecchiette here, the original recipe calls for orzo. I offer up a few suggestions in the main entry.

Saffron vinaigrette:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 medium garlic clove, smashed
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup / 120 ml olive oil
bit of sugar/honey or splash of cream (if needed)

12 ounces / 340 g dried pasta (see head notes)

1 pound / 16 oz / 453g thin asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch segments

3 ounces / 85g goat cheese, crumbled
fresh chopped chive and toasted pine nuts (optional)

To make the dressing add the vinegar and saffron to a small saucepan. Over gentle heat bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat (immediately) and let cool.

Sprinkle the garlic clove with the salt and mash and chop into a paste. Place this in a mixing bowl along with the cooled vinegar and saffron, lemon juice, and mustard. Whisk together, then gradually whisk in the olive oil. Taste, and if it is too harsh for your liking you can soften some of the acidity with a bit of sweetener or a splash of cream. Set aside.

Bring a large pasta pot of water to a boil, salt well and add the pasta. Cook until al dente. Just 30 seconds before the pasta is finished cooking add the asparagus. You just barely want to cook the asparagus. Drain, rinse with cold water, and shake off as much extra water as possible.

Place the pasta in a large bowl, toss with the saffron vinaigrette, and set aside or refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to a day). Toss again, taste, and add a bit more salt if needed.

You can serve this slightly chilled, at room temperature, or even reheated in a skillet (really good), topped with tiny dollops of goat cheese. A handful of chopped chives and toasted pine nuts makes this extra good.

Serves 6-8.

Inspired by the Orzo Vegetable Salad in Saffron Vinaigrette in Diane Worthington's The Taste of Summer (Bantam Books, 1988)

Prep time: 20 minutes - Cook time: 35 minutes

If you make this recipe, I'd love to see it - tag it #101cookbooks on Instagram!

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This looks delicious -- I've been wanting more recipes that use saffron. To use both whole wheat and white pasta in a recipe, I just put the whole wheat pasta in the water first, return to a boil and cook 2-3 minutes. Then add white pasta and time as usual.


I've not made many recipes with saffron, but have been wanting to for quite a while. I was just waiting for "the one" to try. I think I've found it! Thanks, Heidi!


love love your book Heidi and enjoying your recipes a lot. So healthy and delicious! Thank you and wish you great success Regards, Rowaida

Rowaida Flayhan

Maybe some of your beautiful photos will inspire me to switch to more whole grains. Just maybe...I love the saffron in the vinaigrette.


Beautiful salad! The saffron dressing piqued my interest.

Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks

The blobs of goat cheese with that bright orange dressing look like saffron-coated cauliflower florets! Beautiful salad.


Your post caught my attention when you mentioned the pasta from Puglia. I lead culinary tours in Italy about once a year and am heading back to Lecce in Puglia in two weeks for a week spent at a cooking school there. Did you travel there or did you get the pasta after it was imported here? It's a lovely town - add Lecce to your list if you haven't made it there yet!

Cooking with Michele

We typically eat whole wheat pasta in our house, but I have never come across whole wheat orzo. I'll have to keep a look out for it. The saffron vinaigrette is a great idea for a light, flavorful preparation.

Cookin' Canuck

You have brought back some lovely memories. I always enjoyed the ride from San Francisco to Rutherford, where friends had a place. It's been a long time, but I can still remember the smell of the spring air with the windows rolled down. This recipe captures -perfectly- the feeling of spring. I can't wait for fresh asparagus here in New England. This will be wonderful. Thank you... Michaela

The Gardener's Eden

Not sure we'd like the recipe but I enjoyed your post and beautiful photography. Doesn't it just tickle you when you get a well-loved cookbook from a second hand store? Love your blog :)

Sarah @ Mum In Bloom

What a wonderful looking recipe. I love saffron, it has such a unique taste and you only need a pinch- it is worth the expense, in my opinion. And I love, love, love your stories... what did you pick up from the bakery? xo Kris

Kristin (Cook, Bake and Nibble)

I have all of the ingredients on hand to make this. I'd make it with brown rice pasta because I am gluten free but otherwise, this looks like a light and tasty lunch. I'm making your coconut red lentil soup today and I can't wait!

christie @ honoring health

Oh I'm sure that saffron makes it soooo good!

Simply Life

I'm so excited about asparagus finally being in season! I love the vinaigrette recipe--I often one very similar without the saffron, but I'll be sure to add it next time and give it a try! Thanks!

Lucie from Bilingual Butter

I like the combination of asparagus with cheese and pasta - sounds delicious! And I love your choice of bowls and plates. Heidi, do you think the recipe would work with white asparagus too? (I would cook the white asparagus only for 1 minute, such that it is still firm and crunchy.)


yummy and helathy salad...

Hari Chandana

Sounds great! I haven't seen any whole wheat orzo here so I think I will try it with some whole spelt pagodas that I've been using recently. I'm really looking forward to trying that vinaigrette. Thanks!

Joe @ Eden Kitchen

"Yellow swatches of mustard buffered the vineyards" .... wow, great writing! Nothing complements good photos like solid writing. It's like what a good sprinkling of sea salt does to a chocolate chip cookie! Thanks for sharing this.


Dear Heidi, the pasta you used transformed the color palette of this dish, it really looks fantastic! I'm wondering if I could make half the ammount of vinaigrette, since saffron is quite expensive here... about 20 dollars for less than a Tbsp. I normally use just a pinch of threads each time. Thanks.


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