Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

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Last year I attempted to grow a garden. I ended up with possibly a pound of cherry tomatoes, a handful of chives, enough kale for regular consumption, and an uncanny amount of zucchini.

This year I attempted to grow a garden again. For about two weeks before summer broke I weeded and watered and planted seeds and cooed over the plants. And I haven’t been back since.  It was empowering to grow my own crops, but I was not good at it. Perhaps I have a black thumb. I recently killed a mint plant. You know, the ones that are so prolific that there are warnings about planting them in any place that they can possibly spread because they can and will grow like a weed? Maybe one day I’ll be good at gardening. For now I’ll  put my money where my mouth is and buy local vegetables in penance for all the plants I’ve killed with my neglect.

In any regard, the recipes I needed most last year were recipes to use up zucchini. I grew ones that reached two feet long, and would have kept growing if I had not decided to save what flavor was left. Zucchini filled my vegetable crisper for months. It got baked into bread, shredded into pancakes, stewed with tomatoes and eggplants, and was the subject of many an experiment. I’m destined to love zucchini. When I lived in England I would routinely walk to the greengrocer to pick out a handful of plump, firm, dark green zucchini. When I brought them to the counter the proprietor would inevitably and deliberately inform me that I was buying courgettes. I always made sure to carefully thank him for the zucchini, and then would head back to the kitchen. At the time I had more free time than I was accustomed to, and I would routinely spend 2 hours making dinner. Perhaps I should have known what my career path was  then. Instead it took me four more years of trying and floundering to figure it out.

One of my first experiments with zucchini was sautéing in olive oil and garlic and tossing it with pasta. I’ve repeated this format using a variety of vegetables with great success. Back then I was still teaching myself to cook and was horrified at not having a dishwasher. I still don’t have a dishwasher, but I have mastered the art of a good zucchini pasta. This beauty is a little less quick-easy-gotta-eat-now meal, and has transitioned into a creamy and elegant way to eat your vegetables that’s still quick and easy.

The secret to this pasta is cheese. Brie, specifically. A moderate amount of mild brie cheese melts into the pasta water and forms a light sauce, creamy enough to feel like a treat but light enough for summer dinner. And please do use something mild and inexpensive- there’s no reason to splurge on something intense or funky. There’s a generous amount of basil stirred into the pasta for a sweet, fresh anise back note, and crushed red pepper flakes for a bit of heat.The whole sauce is has a beautiful bright note from lemon juice and is a satisfying match to sautéd zucchini and onions. It’s quite good on its own, but is even better when accented with fresh basil and slivered almonds.

Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

adapted from The New York Times

Serves 2 generously or 4 moderately

It’s best if the zucchini and the pasta are both ready at the same time. Since that sort of magical timing rarely happens in real life, aim to finish the zucchini before the pasta- it will sit much better than the pasta will.

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 large zucchini, cut into quarters lengthwise and then sliced into 1/4 inch pieces
3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups basil, tightly packed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
4 ounces of mild brie cheese, rind removed and cubed
8 ounces of your short pasta shape of choice
basil, for serving
slivered almonds, for serving

Heat a large skillet (and I do mean large- I used a 12 inch skillet) over medium heat and add three tablespoons of olive oil. Once the olive oil is hot add the onion and garlic. Stir well, and let sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft but hasn’t taken on any color, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a healthy amount of salt, then cook your 8 ounces of pasta until tender. Before draining the pasta save 1 cup of the pasta water.

Add the zucchini, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, crushed red pepper flakes, and black pepper to your large skillet. Stir to coat everything. Let the zucchini cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it gets soft and starts to take on some color. If the zucchini is finished before the pasta you can remove the skillet from heat.

Meanwhile, using a food processor, mortar and pestle, or a sharp knife, bash the basil into a paste. Stir the basil with the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and the lemon zest.

When the pasta and zucchini are both finished add the pasta, the basil paste, the brie, and 1/4 cup of pasta water to the skillet. If you removed the skillet from heat return it to medium high heat now. Stir well, letting the brie dissolve. If you need to add more pasta water add it a 1/4 cup at a time, stirring well between each addition. Add the lemon juice. Taste and adjust for seasonings as necessary.

Serve right away, garnished with torn basil and the slivered almonds.

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