"Here, the cheese melts into a silky veil of nutty, buttery flavor over the pasta, and its more assertive flavors mellow softly in the background."
The question of what to do with piles of zucchini always arises in the month of August, when tubular green squash is busting out all over place. I try hard not to be tempted into buying any at the farmers' market because inevitable gifts of zucchini seem to arrive on our doorstep in waves, from friends who are both proud to display their advanced gardening skills and anxious to unload their bumper crop onto seemingly vegetable-deficient apartment dwellers. Muffins, check; bread, check; cake, check; casserole, check...it can get a bit monotonous without a tasty pasta recipe in the lineup.
My first encounter with a version of this dish was three years ago, in a small trattoria in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. The combination of zucchini and Gorgonzola sounded a little odd when the waiter explained it to us as the day's special dish, but the steaming plate that was placed in front of me a few minutes later was nothing short of heavenly. I was shocked at how understated the flavor of the cheese was, and after a long, languid lunch, the chef-owner ended his shift by sharing a glass of wine with me and explaining his recipe.
Because the memory of that day is so sweet, this pasta has become one of my favorite comfort dishes, great for a night alone with a bowl of carbs and a glass of wine on the sofa. But the unexpectedly soft, subtle flavors and pretty green color make it a standout for a company supper, too.
The mention of Gorgonzola-anything implies getting hit over the head with a big, blue, stinky cheese. The real surprise is that this noble actor, in the proper role, can be subtle, nuanced and sublime. Here, the cheese melts into a silky veil of nutty, buttery flavor over the pasta, and its more assertive flavors mellow softly in the background. Shallots and garlic season the otherwise bland zucchini, celery provides a bit of backbone, and a squeeze of lemon keeps things light and bright.
When you shop for Gorgonzola you may encounter a choice of the milder, creamier Gorgonzola Dolce, or more piquant and spicy Gorgonzola Piccante; the former will make for a milder sauce, and the latter is for more pronounced blue flavor. Either one works just fine, but I don't recommend subbing another type of blue cheese if you can help it since the flavor of blue cheeses varies widely. As the for the pasta, I've tried other shapes, both short and long; the trattoria original featured thick spaghetti, but farfalle is my sentimental favorite.
- 2 medium zucchini (about 1/2 a pound)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
- 1 large rib of celery, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 pound farfalle, or another pasta shape
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 4 ounces Gorgonzola, piccante or dolce, cut in pieces
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 2 large sprigs basil, finely julienned
Place 4 quarts of water in a large pot, season with salt and bring to a boil.
Wash the zucchini and trim the ends, then grate them on the largest side of a box grater and set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat the oil and butter and sauté the shallot and celery over medium heat, stirring, until the vegetables soften and begin to turn translucent. Add the minced garlic and continue cooking for another minute. Add the zucchini to the pan and sauté until the zucchini begins to soften and wilt.
In the meantime, add the pasta to the boiling water and stir occasionally as the pasta cooks.
Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. When the pasta is almost al dente, add the lemon juice, 1/4 of a cup of the pasta cooking water and the cheese to the pan, stirring to melt the cheese. Stir in the parsley and basil and let the mixture simmer gently for a moment or two.
Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water in case it is needed; add the pasta to the pan with the sauce and toss to coat it completely. Let the pasta cook in the pan for a minute, adding a splash of the reserved cooking water if the sauce seems too tight. Transfer to a warm bowl and serve immediately.