I look for opportunities to use my mortar and pestle. Otherwise it just sits on the counter like an avocado-colored fondue pot from the 70s. Besides, I enjoy crushing leaves and spices to release their goodness into the world. It makes me feel like Miracle Max, mixing a healing potion.
This recipe for Summer Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil caught my eye, because it calls for blending a garlic-basil pesto with a mortar and pestle. You could buy the pesto, but why do that when you can practice medieval alchemy on your countertop?
A Classic Summer Favorite
Each summer, this zucchini-pasta recipe pops up on the Internet like wild daisies along a country road. Probably because it’s yet another way to use an oversupply of squash. But it’s also doggone good. Anytime I see that The New York Times, Washington Post, Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart, Epicurious, and Food52 are all posting nearly the same recipe, I print it out and head for the kitchen.
An Easy Dinner
I made this recipe for dinner recently—it took me less than 30 minutes. I was blown away by its fresh, creamy flavor. Basically, you just put diced onions and olive oil in a skillet, add sliced zucchini and let it all soften, while your noodles boil.
When the pasta is al dente, toss it into a skillet along with a dollop of ricotta and a splash of pasta cooking water. Everything comes together in a creamy melange.
Stir in lemon zest and a basil pesto (or make your own with fresh basil leaves, garlic and a bit of olive oil). Top with grated Parm or pecorino. Ta-da! (A more precise recipe can be found at the bottom of this post.)
Summer Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 2 lbs. zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick pieces
- Salt and pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 oz. basil, about 2 cups loose leaves
- 1 lb. tubetti, ziti, rigatoni or other small, dry pasta
- 8 oz. ricotta, about 1 cup
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 oz. grated Parmesan, pecorino or a mixture, about 1 cup, plus more for serving
- Put a pot of water on to boil. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons olive oil until softened, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat, to keep onions from browning. Add zucchini, season generously with salt and pepper, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until rather soft, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.
- Meanwhile, use a mortar and pestle to pound garlic, basil and a little salt into a rough paste (or use a mini food processor). Stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil.
- Salt the pasta water and add pasta, stirring. Boil per package instructions, but make sure to keep pasta al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.
- Add cooked pasta to zucchini in skillet and turn heat to medium-high. Add 1/2 cup cooking water, then the ricotta, crushed red pepper and lemon zest, stirring to combine. Check seasoning and adjust. Cook for 1 minute more. Mixture should look creamy. Add a little more pasta water, if necessary.
- Add basil paste and half the grated cheese and stir. Spoon pasta into warm soup plates and sprinkle with additional cheese. Serve immediately.
Kitchen Notes: Don’t ignore the lemon zest and red pepper flakes, from whence cometh the gentle flavor kick. Stick with the amount of zucchini called for in the recipe. Because of its high moisture content, too much squash can make the dish overly wet. If using larger zucchini, cut in half lengthwise before slicing. Use a short pasta such as tubetti (my favorite), rigatoni, or ziti. If you’re not inclined to make your own ricotta—and it’s not all that hard—buy it at the grocery or, better yet, get some homemade at a farmers’ market.