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

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The first time I made this I used supermarket own brand red wine vinegar and it's was a bit horrid, and gave me a sore tummy. Then I bought some better vinegar from my local deli and now it's delicious!


This was delicious! I preferred it served warm, though, with hot roasted pine nuts and feta cheese. I'll certainly be making this again.


I made this the other night - but did a short cut version in which I drained the pasta, threw on the dressing and added the goat cheese and pine nuts and served right away. I liked it better this way than when I had the refrigerated leftovers the next day. I also had small roasted beets (candy striped) on hand, so I quartered those and added them. The beets matched the flavors perfectly and the pink really made the dish beautiful. HS: ooh - the roasted candy striped beets sound fantastic! Nice addition.


I made this last night for dinner. I used part penne pasta (whole wheat) and part left-over rotelle pasta. It was awesome! I actually toasted the pine nuts to a darker brown - it really added to the dish and added a little red onion. I appreciated the suggestion of honey and that definitely cut the tartness of the viniagrette. This one is a keeper! Thank you!!

Rachel O

yum-o-licious! off to the farmers market!


I'm making this tonight. By the way,if you go looking at the Ferry Building for the orrechiette it isn't carried at Far West Fungi, but at the Village Market across the hall and over a couple of shops.

Peter Armstrong

Hi Heidi, Just made this tonight (and the coconut red lentil soup last night). Completely fantastic. I think next time I make it I'll add more spring green veggies like peas and snap peas to make a heavier on the veg version. Thanks for all the fabulous recipes


This vinaigrette sounds delicious.

Heather @ The Wisch List

this recipe comes at a good time. a good friend of mine just brought me back some saffron from Spain as a gift.


That is such a light and surprising dish. Pasta salads are usually the worst!

small kitch cara

looks amazing.


I've never seen pasta that dark before! I'm sure I would love it as I love pasta in all shapes and forms. This dish sounds perfect for the beautiful weather that we're having. Jenn

Jenn (

You always find such great vintage cookbooks!


I was already salivating when I read "saffron," but by the time I got to goat cheese, I was drooling! This is so unattractive- especially at work. I really love the aesthetics of this dish. I typically use whole wheat or brown rice pasta, but I also find myself subbing in grains like bulgur, kasha, whole wheat cous cous and quinoa in salads like this. I think it gives it an added nutritional boost, but you really have to pay attention to the flavors. Some grains have a very earthy, nutty taste.


What a great flavour combination - would never have thought of it! Get so much inspiration from you thanks X Aletta


Thank you for this recipe! I was thrilled when I saw it because I had all the ingredients in my fridge. I added arugula and cherry tomatoes to make it more of a salad - and there was none left over!! Delish!


This post came just in time. My husband just asked me what saffron was exactly and if I wouldn't please make something with it. Thanks.


Wow great use of saffron in a pasta. I happen to have some saffron on hand so I will be trying this soon. Cheers!


Excellent as usual!


Oh, you had me at saffron. This sounds terrific.


Heidi, I just made this dish. I soaked the asparagus in akaline water to keep it crunchy and fresh. Question: Do you have any recommendations for summer cooking vacations (with healthy food like yours)?

Fish Girl

Looks wonderful! For anyone trying to eat whole-grain pasta but unhappy with whole wheat, consider trying brown rice pastas. The good ones are MUCH better than they used to be, and are more similar to "regular" pasta than whole wheat pastas are.


Oh this looks so wonderful!! I've never had toasted wheat orecchiettes but I would loooove to try them


I kept looking at the white & yellow things, trying to figure out what they were and finally realized it's the goat cheese tinted with the saffron vinaigrette - neat! That ww orechiette looks spectacular - we used to call it army hats when my kids were little and this kind justifies the name!


Heidi - Did you dress both the pasta and the asparagus the day before? I am guessing just the pasta, but am curious, since I made this today (pasta-less) and am wondering how the dressed asparagus will hold up tomorrow. Thanks! The dressing is delicious... and I happen to have a ton of saffron from a trip abroad. To others - Trader Joes is a good place to get saffron for less than your average grocery store. HS: Hi Karen: I dressed it all together, and the day after the asparagus wasn't exactly bright and vibrant, but it was still good in it's own ever-so-slightly pickled way...You could always leave it out until you're ready to's really a personal preference.


I have never been a big pasta fan, but lately my tastebuds are changing! I am going to try out this recipe as soon as I go grocery shopping this weekend.


My mouth is watering. I'll be making this just as soon as our local asparagus is ready. Saffron + goat cheese = inspiration. :-)


I buy my saffron at a little Indian grocery store in a strip mall by my house. It's the kind of store where they have everything from lentils to Indian VHS movies. They sell saffron for about a quarter of what I would pay at the grocery store, and the quality seems the same. Checking out the local Indian grocery might be a good idea for anyone concerned about the price of saffron...

The Rowdy Chowgirl

I am convinced most whole wheat pasta haters just haven't bought the right one yet. The right one, and I believe Cook's Illustrated recently agreed with me, is Bionaturae brand. I won't eat anything else, and no, I have no ties to this company.


Excellent, just got back from a trip to India, and I have lots of saffron with no definite plans for it.

The Ordinary Vegetarian

Lovely recipe! Saffron is such a delicate spice. Use too much and it ruins the dish. Use the right amount and it elevates it. Magda

my little expat kitchen

This salad is so unique and scrumptious looking! Thanks AGAIN for the healthy recipe :)


your recipes always grab my attention and palette! just last night i declared it pasta salad season in the house and set out this morning to find recipes but this golden nugget was waiting in my email!!!! THANKYOU!!!!


Wow, I would like to try saffron! This looks gorgeous :) I think I will even use our family favorite pasta made with Kamut Khorasan Wheat! It is so good and nutritious and really yummy! Thank you for the recipe!!


I'm not sure, but I think saffron is a spice that different people are more sensitive to; I know that, for example, I find it a lot stronger smelling than my mother does. I love it, though, and it really is unique. For those of you who may live in a place where saffron is expensive, try buying it off the internet; especially if you buy a slightly larger container it's more affordable, and in my experience, much better and fresher than the sad little vials they've had sitting on the shelves locally.


Your description of St Helena in early spring is spot-on. I love the smell of earth and rain, and the new life just around the corner, promised by the mustard blossoms! And this recipe (especially with the earth-colored orecchiette) is the perfect result of your trip. I can't wait to try it!

Chef, Interrupted

I'm excited for Spring and your pasta salads! I love the ones you create, there's always such depth and flavor from a few ingredients. I've made a handful and loved them all. I can't wait to start seeing beautiful, fresh produce in season to make dishes like this!

Christina (Dinner at Christina's)

Love the idea of Saffron Vinaigrette, all those ingredient should give a nice flavor to the dish. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe with us.

Radhika Vasanth

This looks so simple and delicious - I can't wait to give it a go! Thank you.

emma. our kitchen

I originally got on your site tonight to make your Red Pesto Ravioli recipe (it's my favorite on here), but found this new post. I switched mid gear and decided to make the viniagrette and use it on the tortellini I was making. I was already cooking the tomatoes in the oven, so I added those on top. The blanched asparagus was just right along with the goat cheese and the pasta. Thanks so much! Love your site!


I have been happily making your recipes for months now, and recommending them to everyone I know. Quick question--any substitutions anyone would recommend for the mustard?


I like the heartiness this dish suggests. I'm not the biggest fan of whole wheat pasta unless I make it myself, but I'm staying open to the idea. The saffron is a nice surprise.


Heidi, gon' girl! Your photography and writing is seduction enough. I would eat whatever you threw on the table because of your respect for food. Your comment board has made me decide to bone up on saffron. I travel quite a bit and will find it in other countries for a small steal. I bought truckloads from the beaches of Goa.


Can you tell me where I can get whole wheat orzo in San Francisco? HS: Hi Renée. Look in the bin section at Rainbow Grocery.


I've never used saffron because of its high (to me) price, especially since I don't think it has any taste (but maybe I'm wrong about the taste). Yellow color is just not worth that much money IMO, so I'm obviously missing something! If this recipe was made without saffron and a person ate it with eyes closed, would they taste a difference without the saffron? Have I missed an important experience here? I just don't know.


Saffron is one of my favorite spices. What a great looking pasta dish, Heidi. I love the colors.

Nisrine@Dinners & Dreams

Saffron is one of my favorite spices. What a great looking pasta dish, Heidi. I love the colors.

Nisrine@Dinners & Dreams

Why each pasta in it's own pot, Heidi? HS: Hi Nivedita, the whole wheat pasta takes longer to cook.


I am doing this tonight! We just got back from a long drive and I needed some inspiration. Thanks Heidi.

Jamie G. Dougherty

Sounds like a lovely recipe...can't wait to try it. I like the saffron in it...definitely unique and exotic. Thanks Heidi.


wow, this looks delicious! The whole wheat orzo makes this salad extra special.


Looks amazing! The pasta you've used is just beautiful. I'm totally intrigued by the flavors here.


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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