This Zucchini Pasta Changed the Way I Think About Summer Squash

published Aug 11, 2022
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Spaghetti alla Nicolina (Spaghetti with Zucchini and Pecorino Romano) Recipe

A summery squash-filled pasta adapted slightly from Rolando Beramendi’s book AUTENTICO: Cooking the Italian Way.

Serves4 to 6

Prep45 minutes

Cook30 minutes

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Photograph of classic Spaghetti alla Nicolina.
Credit: Asha Loupy

There comes a point every summer where I think I can’t eat any more squash. And then I get to the farmers market and see a plethora of summer squash cuties, ranging from classic zucchini and crooknecks to tiny pattypans, plump cousa, and bicolored zephyrs. And, inevitably, I leave with a couple pounds (or more) of these beauties. In moments of zucchini bounty, I turn to my favorite squash-filled pasta dish: spaghetti alla Nicolina, from Rolando Beramendi’s book AUTENTICO: Cooking the Italian Way

When Rolando first told me about this recipe — one that he learned from Nicolina Peduzzi, the matriarch of the family behind Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta and this dish’s namesake — I couldn’t believe the short ingredient list. Zucchini, extra-virgin olive oil, pasta, Pecorino Romano, salt, and pepper. That’s all!

The zucchini is sliced (more on that later) and caramelized in a very generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil until deep, nutty, and sweet. Then, the cooked zucchini is tossed with spaghetti, grated Pecorino Romano, and freshly cracked black pepper. The latter two ingredients are key — the sharpness of the cheese and black pepper heat both provide foils for the inherent sweetness of the squash.

How This Recipe Transforms Zucchini

The beauty of this recipe is not only its simplicity, but also its ability to transform one ingredient with just a few knife cuts. Instead of cutting the zucchini in uniform pieces, the squash is sliced in differing thicknesses ranging from a 1/4 to 1/2 inch. (I even like to go as thin as 1/8 inch and as thick as 3/4 inch.) The varying sizes result in some pieces caramelizing and melting into the sauce — imbuing the olive oil with the sweet squash-y flavors of summer — while others turn deep golden while still retaining their shape and tender-crisp texture.

In the original recipe, Rolando salts his zucchini and lets them sit for 30 minutes, allowing some of the water to drain off and seasoning them from the inside out. With smaller, peak-season squash (or if I’m in a hurry after a long day) I skip this step. But at the tail end of summer, when zucchini are a little thicker with more water weight, take the time to salt the squash. This will help facilitate beautifully caramelized pieces of zucchini rather than watery, mushy bites. Another tip for avoiding the mush factor: If you come across an especially big zucchini (read: the one you find hiding in the depths of your squash plant), split it down the middle and remove the seeds and spongy center before slicing and salting.

Credit: Asha Loupy

Use the Caramelized Zucchini as a Base for More Fun Summer Cooking

Nicolina’s original recipe is perfectly delicious as is, but the caramelized zucchini also makes a beautiful canvas for a few simple additions. 

I love tossing in a couple cups of cherry tomatoes during the last five minutes of cooking, the heat of the oil blistering and breaking their thin skins so they burst and their juices mingle with the olive oil. To balance the sweetness of both the squash and the tomatoes, toss in a couple anchovy fillets at the same time as the tomatoes, letting them melt into the sauce.

Or, if you want to go the briny and herbaceous route, toss in some roughly chopped, pitted green olives and a handful or torn fresh basil leaves off the heat just before serving. You can also mix up the cheese — try fresher ricotta salata, grated on the large side of the grater or big, chunky pieces of feta (just stick with something that has enough salt to stand up to the squash). And, have fun with the pasta shape, too! This dish is equally delectable with long and short pasta cuts.

Spaghetti alla Nicolina (Spaghetti with Zucchini and Pecorino Romano) Recipe

A summery squash-filled pasta adapted slightly from Rolando Beramendi’s book AUTENTICO: Cooking the Italian Way.

Prep time 45 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 8

    medium zucchini (about 2 1/4 pounds total)

  • Kosher or coarse sea salt

  • 1 cup

    olive oil

  • Crushed Tellicherry black peppercorns

  • 1 pound

    dried spaghetti

  • 1 cup

    grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Instructions

  1. Trim and cut 8 medium zucchini crosswise into rounds of different thicknesses (1/4 to 1/2-inch thick). Layer in a colander, seasoning each layer with a generous pinch of kosher or coarse sea salt. Set aside to rest for 30 minutes.

  2. Rinse the zucchini, then pat dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.

  3. Heat 1 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add a quarter of the sliced zucchini in a single layer, but do not stir. Every 2 to 3 minutes, add another quarter of the zucchini, layering them without stirring. Once all the zucchini has been added, cook, gently stirring every few minutes, until the zucchini range in color from light gold to dark golden brown, and in texture from soft to crisp, 20 to 25 minutes total. Season with crushed Tellicherry black peppercorns.

  4. While the zucchini is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti, letting it soften and submerge itself in the water. Once the pasta is submerged, give it a stir so it doesn’t stick on the bottom. Cook to al dente, about 1 minute less than the package instructions.

  5. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the spaghetti and immediately add it to the zucchini. With the heat still on medium, add 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, sprinkle with 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and, using tongs, gently lift and toss the spaghetti to mix well. If the sauce is looking a little thick, add another splash or two of pasta cooking water. Season with more salt and pepper as needed. Bring the skillet to the table and serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

Variations:

Zucchini, Burst Tomatoes, and Anchovies

  • Decrease the zucchini to 1 1/2 pounds. Then, in Step 3, after all the zucchini is added and the squash just starts to caramelize, add 2 cups cherry tomatoes, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 4 to 6 anchovy fillets, and a pinch of red pepper flakes if desired. Give everything a stir and allow it to cook undisturbed until a few of the tomatoes start to burst and the anchovies have melted into the oil, 4 to 5 minutes.
  • Gently press the tomatoes, encouraging them to burst, and continue to cook until the sauce looks thick and jammy, but most of the tomatoes still remain whole, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low until the pasta is cooked and follow the instructions in Step 5.

Zucchini with Olives, Basil & Ricotta salata

  • Decrease the zucchini to 2 pounds. In Step 5, toss 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted green olives and a couple handfuls of torn fresh basil leaves in with the zucchini and pasta. Substitute 1 cup coarsely grated ricotta salata cheese for the Pecorino and toss the cheese in off the heat right before serving.

Zucchini with Tinned Tuna & Lemon

  • Decrease the zucchini to 2 pounds. In Step 5, off the heat, add 1 (4-ounce) can drained good-quantity tuna, the finely grated zest of 1 medium lemon, and 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice. Skip the Pecorino Romano and add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley leaves or tender green herb of your choice, such as basil and dill.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Adapted from AUTENTICO: Cooking Italian, the Authentic Way by Rolando Beramendi with Rebekah Peppler. Copyright © 2017 by Rolando Beramendi. Used by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All Rights Reserved.