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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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.


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