Penne with Zucchini, Walnuts, and Mozzarella

Penne with Zucchini, Walnuts, and Mozzarella
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penne, zucchini, walnuts, and mozzarella
Fast, easy, and tasty!

As we said yesterday, we’re testing a bunch of zucchini recipes to build up a core set that we can use as “go-to” recipes in the summer. Yesterday, we made a nice salad using zucchini as one of the main ingredients. It’s not often you see that. Today, we’re going a bit more traditional, making a zucchini pasta dish based on a recipe we found in Pasta, by Gianni Scappin, Alberto Vanoli and Francesco Tonelli.

We like the idea of this dish solely because of the walnuts. They’re such a great addition to savory dishes, including pasta and pizza, we don’t know why more cooks don’t use them from time to time. Perhaps it’s that they’re easily overlooked when it comes time to put together dinner. That, and, of course, nuts are expensive, so many people don’t keep them in the house 24/7 as we scratchers do.

Oh, the pictures below show making a half-batch of this dish. We’ll give the ingredients list for 2 generous portions.

Penne with Zucchini, Walnuts, and Mozzarella

Yield: 2-3 servings

Penne with Zucchini, Walnuts, and Mozzarella


  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce/30 g) chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 medium (8 ounces/250g) zucchini, quartered lengthwise, then sliced thinly
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaved parsley
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 ounces (250g) penne rigate pasta
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce/30 g) grated Parmesan (or Grana Padano) cheese
  • 4 ounces (125 g) fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2-inch cubes

Abbreviated Instructions

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add onions and cook, stirring often, until tender and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, lower heat slightly to prevent burning, and stir and cook until fragrant about 1 minute.

Add zucchini and stir, cooking and increasing heat if necessary, until zucchini is cooked through.

Add parsley, salt, and pepper to the zucchini and stir to combine.

Meanwhile, boil and drain pasta. Toss with zucchini over medium heat.

Fold in cheeses, immediately divide into warmed bowls, and sprinkle walnuts on top.

Serve immediately.

Ingredient discussion:

Yes, walnuts are expensive, but they’re so tasty you shouldn’t forego, as their crunchy texture and nutty flavor really make this dish. The original recipe called for provolone cheese instead of the mozzarella, and we think that would be really good, too; we just didn’t have any on hand, nor did we want to make a trip to the store. Parsley. We rarely have flat-leaved parsley in the house. We did for this because we received a bunch from the CSA this week. We’re not sure that we would have bought it especially for this dish; perhaps we would have used a mild dried herb, such as basil or chervil, instead. And, as always, good cheese does not come from a green shaker can; instead, Parmesan cheese comes in irregularly-sized chunks and must be grated.

Procedure in detail:

Toast nuts. If you haven’t already, toast those walnuts. Probably the easiest way is to put them in the dry skillet (no oil) that you’ll be using, place it over medium heat, and, shaking or stirring regularly, cook the walnuts until they smell fragrant and start to turn a darker brown, about 10 minutes. Once toasted, immediately remove them from the skillet to prevent burning.

mise en place
This dish goes from start to finish in under 10 minutes. Get everything ready.

Mise en place. Once the nuts are toasted and cooling, you should go through the trouble of getting everything ready as this dish cooks up in about 10 minutes. You’d hate to be scrambling to cube mozzarella, then have the pasta boil over, distracting you so that you slice into your thumb instead of the cheese. Sure, it makes the dinner rush exciting, but cleanup afterward is a pain. So, one by one, cube the mozzarella, grate the Parmesan, chop the parsley, slice the onion, mince the garlic, and set a large kettle of salted water on the stove to boil. There. Now you can quickly and easily make dinner.

Heat oil. In a large skillet (large enough to hold the pasta and zucchini once cooked), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Not so hot that it’ll smoke, but hot enough that the onion will sizzle when it hits the pan.

Cook aliums. Alliums are anything from the onion family: onions, leeks, garlic, shallots, etc. Toss the onions into the hot oil and stir to break the onion into rings. Continue stirring and cooking until the onions are tender and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring nearly constantly, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, about 1 minute.

cooking zucchini
By slicing the zucchini thinly, it’ll cook up in a trice.

Add zucchini. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring often, until it’s cooked through, about 5 minutes. Now, if you need to, lower the heat to a bare simmer while the pasta boils. Once the pasta is nearly done, about a minute away, raise the heat back up and continue.

adding parsley
If you don’t have fresh parsley, consider using dried basil; just not as much, of course.

Add parsley and season. Stir in the parsley and sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. How much salt and pepper we leave up to you. Meanwhile, drain the pasta.

adding pasta
It looks like a lot of pasta, but we’re using mini penne, so they’re only about an inch long.

Add pasta. Stir in the pasta, and, if you had to drain it early, allow it to heat through, giving a few good stirs so that it’s coated with oil and parsley.

Add cheese. Turn off the heat and quickly fold in the cheeses. You don’t want it to melt, so just give it a few quick stirs.

penne, zucchini, walnuts, and mozzarella
Fast, easy, and tasty!

Serve. Divide into warmed bowls — we just pop the bowls into the oven set on low while we make dinner, then take them out for serving — and top with the toasted walnuts.

This is a fast, easy, and most importantly, tasty way to serve zucchini and we liked it a lot. The real key to the dish was the addition of the small amount of nuts. Without walnuts, this dish would be quite bland, and wouldn’t have enough texture contrasts to be interesting. The walnuts form a nice contrast between the pasta and the cheese, especially since the cheese shouldn’t be melted, just warmed through. At first, we thought that we wouldn’t like just having pieces of unmelted cheese in with the pasta — after all, we’re inveterate mac ‘n’ cheese lovers — but we were wrong. In this case, we think it’s far better to have the mozzarella in distinct pieces and not melted and stringy. Four stars. After all, it’s tasty and easy.

Worth the trouble?

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