Friday, April 10, 2015

Pasta with zucchini, saffron and smoked pancetta


I do not showcase pasta as much as I probably should on this blog, given that I live in Italy and we all love it in any shape or size. The reason is that more often than not, we throw together a pasta on a Friday night, while opening a bottle of wine to unwind, using up the last wilted greens and limp vegetables left in our fridge, and embellishing it with some pantry favorites (tuna, anchovies, smoked pancetta, olives...). No recipe, no amounts, no pre-planning. Just a relaxed, last-minute family meal made even better by the endless possibilities of the whole week end stretching ahead of us.

Granted, pretty much all of the recipes I blog about are easy and foolproof, but pasta somehow always just seemed too obvious to write about. That is until I started thinking about all the times I look up techniques or recipes  that are extremely common, staples in many households, especially when they are dishes from different cultures. If I look up how to make an authentic curry or how they cook rice in Japan, there must be someone in India or Japan wondering how much to salt their pasta water or how to get their pasta dishes creamier without adding butter or cream.
What may be obvious and second nature to some of us, isn't necessarily so for others. Sometimes we just need basic guidelines or flavor profiles to boost our confidence when trying to cook something new.

Another thing I tend to forget living in Italy, where it is commonplace to sit around a table and enjoy a full, nutritious meal, is that many families rarely cook from scratch or gather around a table for a meal. Fortunately this is changing and there are more and more people trying to break the habit of consuming ready meals and pre-packaged foods. More of us are aware today of the health issues, plus cooking from scratch is cheaper. And what better than a pasta dish for a quick, simple, nutritious and cheap meal to feed a crowd?
The amounts are calculated for 500gr/17.6 oz. of pasta, your basic package.

In a large pan (unless you are following point three below - then save the large pan for your zucchini/courgettes), fry about 200gr of diced, smoked pancetta (or bacon pieces). You want the fat to sizzle and blister, turning a dark golden brown: the salty crunchiness sinfully contrasts with the sweet, creamy texture of the zucchini, but keep in mind that the pancetta will continue keep cooking and harden when it cools off, so be careful not to overcook it.

Now slice about 5 medium-sized zucchini (or courgettes, if you prefer to call them that way) into relatively thin disks and set aside.

When the pancetta is ready, you can go three ways:

1) if you want to keep things light, drain the pancetta on some paper towel and clean out the pan with some more paper towel.  Drizzle the pan with some olive oil and brown a couple of whole garlic cloves in it. Add the pancetta right before you drain the pasta.
We are trying to eat a little light these days, so we went this way, but I suggest you follow point three for extra flavor and crunch!

2) set aside the pancetta (it goes a little soft if you cook it together with the zucchini), and sauté the zucchini disks  directly in the fat, adding some garlic.

3) for maximum flavor, start frying up the pancetta in a smaller pan while the zucchini are already sautéing in a large frying pan with garlic and olive oil, that way the rendered fat and the pancetta will still be hot and sizzling when you drizzle it over the pasta after you have drained it and mixed it with the saffron zucchini.  
But back to our recipe.

Bring  a large pot with plenty of water to a boil and then salt generously. Italians always salt water when the water is already boiling: it takes less for water to boil when unsalted and it is easier to keep an eye on how salty the water is. That is because water evaporates when it boils and if you have salted it beforehand and forget it on the stove, you may end up with very salty water. When salting, remember not to be shy, they say the water should taste like the Mediterranean!

Cover the pan and cook the zucchini until soft and yielding. If you are using powdered saffron (which is the most common variety sold here in Italy), make sure there is still some excess moisture in the pan, as this will help dissolve the saffron when you sprinkle it over the zucchini. If you are using threads, however, soak them in a little hot water for at least 20 minutes and then pour into the pan.

Adjust for salt and pepper.

In the meantime, when the water starts boiling, pour the pasta into the pot. Any pasta will do (we had some linguine that were begging to be used up), but I think thick spaghetti with a coarse, sandy exterior work best for the creamy saffron flavored sauce to adhere to every forkful.

When the pasta is ready, but still has a little bite (always taste your pasta!), take it out of the pot with a spaghetti server and put it directly into the pan with the sauce, without using a colander. Don't worry if it is dripping and wet, that starchy water is the secret to creaminess. Mix the spaghetti, making sure every strand is coated and glistening and ladle in a little more pasta water if it is looking dry.

If you haven't added the pancetta yet, now is the time to, mixing some more.

Serve with freshly ground pepper, plenty of grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.


  1. Beautiful. Pasta is something I feel I can make in my sleep, using whatever I have on hand, but still hearing about authentic recipes is a good thing. And you're right - I can make an Indian-inspired recipe, but I still like following an Indian recipe to know I made something the right way!

  2. You cook pasta the way we cook pasta. I am glad to hear that. And it is also how I cook Indian, Mexican, French, and a variety of East Asian dishes. It isn't always cleaning the fridge on Fridays, but looking in their to get inspiration. It looks like you are using the 3Cuochi brand of saffron, which I love. I stock up every time I am there. Lovely pasta dish and now new recipe for me to try...

  3. I think I always assume people cook but then you come across people that don't and that always surprises me. These sorts of easy, wholesome dishes completely eliminate the need for take away! :D

  4. I love the sound of your Friday nights - they sound like the perfect way to unwind after the working week xx

  5. I love these "svuotafrigo" type dishes whipped up at the spur of the moment—they often are some of the tastiest things to come out of the kitchen.


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