This time of year, you see them piled up at farmers’ markets, or perhaps in your own garden, if you have a patch large enough for spreading vines: zucchinis that could be mistaken for baseball bats.
What on earth to do with these monsters?
Years ago, I came across the answer in the food section of the New York Times under the title of Zucchini Pasta.
The author, Martha Rose Shulman, says that “if you don’t eat wheat, or you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet and miss pasta, this can stand in for fettuccine. Be very careful not to overcook it; it will be al dente after just a few minutes of cooking, after which it will quickly fall apart. When cooked just right, it’s silky and wonderful.”
I still happily eat wheat and other grain-based pastas on occasion, but these vegetable-based noodles are a welcome change and also give you the pleasure of pasta with fewer calories.
The New York Times recipe is really the technique for preparing these vegetable-strip “noodles”; you can then dress them with whatever pasta topping you prefer, from a meat ragu, to fresh chopped tomato and basil, to shrimp sautéed in lemon, butter, and dill.
There are now devices called “spiralizers” that create rounded spaghetti-like strips from vegetables but I’ve stuck to using a standard vegetable peeler, which creates “noodles” somewhere between fettuccine, as Shulman says, and the wider pappardelle.
Cut off the tip and stem end of the zucchini, then start peeling. Include the skin. Keep peeling, rotating the zucchini, until you get to the seedy middle core. Stop there. Shulman advises discarding these but I chop up the cores, pop them into a storage container, and use them in a stir-fry with other vegetables and some chicken or beef in a subsequent meal.
At this point, make sure whatever sauce you may want to use is ready and at hand: the next step goes quickly.
Heat up a teaspoon of olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt and some grindings of fresh black pepper in a large skillet (I use cast iron) on medium-high heat. Add the ribboned zucchini and stir. It will be a generous pile at first; if you are starting with a truly massive zucchini, you may want to cook the “noodles” in two batches. Within two to three minutes, the vegetable strips slump, reducing to about half their former volume. That’s when they’re done: The combination of zucchini, salt, and oil creates the silky mouth-feel the recipe promises.
Once the zucchini is cooked, drain thoroughly if you are using additional sauce; otherwise you’ll have too much liquid. Put into pasta bowls and dress; Parmesan shavings add the final touch.
Later in the fall and throughout the winter, we switch to spaghetti squash for our non-pasta pasta base: Preheat oven to 350, cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, brush the cut and cleaned surfaces with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and place cut-sides down on a baking sheet.
Bake for 30 minutes or until done; test by sticking a sharp knife through the skin of the squash. If the knife goes in easily, the vegetable is cooked. Take out of the oven and, using your handy pasta spoon, scrape out the squash flesh into a mixing bowl. True to its name, the squash falls apart into spaghetti-like strands. Add your favourite pasta topping, toss, and serve in pasta bowls.
If you have a squash-hater in the household, convince him or her to try spaghetti squash as it has a different consistency than most other squashes — think crisp veggie instead of dense mashed squash — so it’s palatable to people who dislike squash because of its texture.
All photos: Kelley Teahen