Cook’s Ilustrated’s Easier, Faster Version of Stanley Tucci’s Spaghetti with Zucchini (Plus Winner of the Food Gal Giveaway)

So thankful to come across an easier yet equally delicious version of this Stanley Tucci favorite.
So thankful to come across an easier yet equally delicious version of this Stanley Tucci favorite.

You may not remember that last year I made Stanley Tucci’s famed “Spaghetti Con Zucchine Alla Nerano,” the captivating dish spotlighted on his CNN show, “Searching for Italy,” and in his memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food.”

But I sure do. How could I forget every minute of carefully frying batch after batch of zucchini slices in a big pot of oil over a hot stove in summer for what seemed an interminable hour?

Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely adored the resulting pasta dish. But I haven’t made it since, even though, I’ve longed for its taste again. Heck, can you blame me?

That’s why I’m so happy to have discovered Cook’s Illustrated’s version that I could have hugged and never let go of its 2022 July/August issue that it published in.

In this rendition, there no deep-frying involved. Let me repeat that: No. Deep. Frying.

Instead, Cook’s Illustrated’s Annie Petito takes the genius step of microwaving the zucchini slices in a splash of salted water until they soften.

After draining the slices, they are sauteed in an even layer in a pan with oil, stirred up now and then, until they start to brown.

The zucchini slices after microwaving.
The zucchini slices after microwaving.
The zucchini after sauteing.
The zucchini after sauteing.

What this two-step approach does is concentrate the flavor of the zucchini by ridding this moisture-heavy veg of much of its water content. It’s what frying also does, but of course, in a messier, more arduous way.

Still, even with a non-stick pan, I found that after stirring the zucchini, I needed a little more oil to ensure they didn’t stick. So, I added that to the recipe below.

This method will make the zucchini slices break up more than they would if they were fried. But honestly, once you mix either the microwaved-sauteed zucchini or the deep-fried zucchini into the hot pasta, the slices will tend to mash up anyway.

The other brilliant move in the Cook’s Illustrated recipe? Using not just grated Parmesan as the Tucci version does, but also adding shredded mild provolone. The provolone not only provides a nutty, buttery taste but melts much better than Parmesan, creating a smoother emulsion with the pasta cooking water to create the sauce. While I found myself stirring rather madly to achieve a cohesive sauce in the Tucci recipe, little effort was required with the Cook’s Illustrated recipe to create a thoroughly velvety sauce that easily clung to every strand of pasta.

A thoroughly satisfying meatless pasta dish that even my husband, aka Meat Boy, devoured happily.
A thoroughly satisfying meatless pasta dish that even my husband, aka Meat Boy, devoured happily.

The recipe does call for 12 ounces of pasta, which always drives me a little nuts. Why not use the entire 1-pound package of spaghetti, right? Because what will you do with that measly 4 ounces remaining?

So, I made the recipe using a full pound of spaghetti. When adding the cheeses to my measuring cups, I made the quantities more heaping to compensate for the added pasta, and it worked out great.

A little fresh chopped basil stirred in toward the end adds to the summery taste of this dish. The supple creamy pasta winds up just cheesy enough, still letting the sweet grassiness of the zucchini come through. What’s more, because of the cooking method, the zucchini loses any bitterness and gains a lovely nutty quality.

Hands down, this is a winning version that I assuredly will be making again and again.

Creamy and cheesy, but not over-the-top rich.
Creamy and cheesy, but not over-the-top rich.

WINNER OF THE FOOD GAL CONTEST: In the recent Food Gal contest, I asked you to tell me one of your favorite things about summer. The winner will receive a free copy of “The Complete Summer Cookbook” by Cook’s Illustrated.

Congrats to Angela C. Yokota, who wrote, “Best thing about summer: fireflies and thunderstorms; picnics and outdoor concerts; farmers markets and cookouts. Summer is the culmination of the promises of spring: ducklings tracking their mama, tomatoes ripening on the vine. As a teacher, summer was time to rejuvenate and to dream, to explore new places and new recipes, which on my budget was often a stand-in for the travel itself. Sampling a new cuisine often involved finding a new market in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The sights and smells of new-to-me spices would satisfy my wanderlust, while still allowing me to select another cultural foray the following week. How else could I visit Greece, then Puerto Rico, then Malaysia? Thank you, summer.”

Ultracreamy Spaghetti with Zucchini

(Serves 4)

2 pounds small zucchini, sliced 1/8 inch thick

1 teaspoon table salt, plus salt for cooking pasta

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

12 ounces spaghetti (see Note)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 1/2 ounces mild provolone cheese, shredded (2/3 cup)

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, stir together zucchini, 1/4 cup water, and salt. Cover and microwave until zucchini is softened (some slices will curl at edges) and liquid is released, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring halfway through microwaving. Drain zucchini in colander and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add zucchini (do not wash colander) and spread into an even layer. Cook, stirring every 4 minutes and then reflattening into an even layer, adding a little more olive oil to the pan if any start to stick, until zucchini is very tender and about half of slices have browned, 10 to 12 minutes (is is OK if some pieces fall apart). (Zucchini can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in a large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve 1 1/2 cups cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot.

Add 1 cup reserved cooking water, zucchini, butter, basil, and pepper to pasta. Set pot over low heat and cook, stirring and tossing pasta constantly until ingredients are evenly distributed and butter is melted, about 1 minute. Off heat, add provolone and Parmesan. Stir vigorously until cheeses are melted and pasta is coated in creamy, lightly thickened sauce, about 1 minute, adjusting consistency with remaining reserved cooking water as needed. Transfer pasta to platter and serve.

Note: If you want to cook an entire 1-pound package of spaghetti, just add a little more cheese, measuring the provolone and Parmesan in heaping cup sizes. You might also end up adding a tad more of the reserved pasta cooking water to the sauce.

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

More: Stanley Tucci’s Spaghetti con Zucchine alla Nerano

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