I was extremely fortunate to volunteer at the top food event in Chicago a few weeks ago: the Green City Market BBQ. One of the best run events in the city – and far superior to last year’s Chicago Gourmet – the BBQ features 65 chef’s from the city’s finest restaurants and sells out quickly, so while crowded it wasn’t overcrowded, and they didn’t run out of food!
There were so many amazing dishes featuring exotic meats like elk and goat to the predictable but always delicious pork belly. But it was a vegetarian offering that really stood out for me: “grilled zucchini and pestyo crostini” from Spiaggia. There was something so pleasing about the simple, fresh, bright flavors that I was inspired to try it at home. Mind you, I don’t claim to cook Spiaggia-type food (it’s one of the top restaurants in Chicago), but I did want to try my hand at reinterpreting the flavors.
My version uses spaghetti (today it was dried whole wheat but fresh would be ideal) instead of crostini (toasted bread) to make it an entree, but I think this zucchini-pesto combination would also be fabulous as a sandwich with chicken.
The first thing I had to do was make the pesto, an Italian sauce made from blended basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This recipe makes much more than you’ll need for the zucchini pasta, but it’s versatile and freezes very well so definitely make the whole thing.
Next I went to work on zucchini. I used stripped zucchini that have the same flavor as regular, which I sauteed with sliced onion until both were lightly caramelized then tossed them with homemade pesto and cooked spaghetti noodles. Voila, a fantastic summer weeknight dinner.
Here’s the recipe for zucchini pesto pasta:
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
4 cups packed basil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Heat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven, about 3 minutes. Be sure to keep an eye on the pine nuts because they can burn quickly. Cool the pine nuts to room temperature.
Combine the pine nuts and garlic in a food processor. Blend well, then add the basil. Pulse until well blended then slowly drizzle in the olive oil with the motor running. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Serve pesto with pasta, vegetables, fish or chicken. Freeze leftover pasta pressed into a thin layer in a plastic bag and break off small pieces as you need them.
Zucchini Pesto Pasta – serves 4
1/2 pound spaghetti noodles
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 onion, sliced into long, thin strips
2 medium zucchini, halved then sliced thin into half-moon shapes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons pesto
2 tablespoons pasta cooking water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water and drain the pasta.
Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the zucchini and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Stir in the pesto and 2 tablespoons pasta cooking water. Add more water if necessary to thin out the sauce. Mix in the cooked pasta and lemon juice. Serve warm.