This recipe transforms two pounds of grated fresh zucchini into one cup of caramelized zucchini that’s rich, sweet and jammy enough to become a pasta sauce. Cooked over moderately high heat in a combination of olive oil and butter, the zucchini fries in its own juices and concentrates its flavor. Adding garlic and basil lends sweetness, but consider adding anchovy, preserved lemon or red-pepper flakes. As browned bits appear in the skillet, deglaze with a few tablespoons of water, chicken stock or vegetable stock to help prevent burning and to incorporate all of those tasty caramelized bits into the sauce. With time and patience, you’ll have a not-so-pretty but delicious mixture, like caramelized onions made with zucchini. Eat it tossed with pasta, as is done here, or add it to sandwiches, pizzas or antipasti spreads.
Caramelized zucchini pasta
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 pounds zucchini, coarsely grated (about 3 large zucchini)
• 8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
• 1/2 cup basil leaves, stems reserved, plus more for serving
• Kosher salt and black pepper
• 1 pound ridged or curly pasta (like medium shells or casarecce)
• 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or pecorino (about 1/2 ounce), finely grated, plus more for serving
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
In a large (at least 12-inch) cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter and oil. When it’s foaming, add the zucchini, garlic, the basil stems and half the basil leaves. Season with 1 1/4 teaspoons salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cover and cook until pooling with liquid, 5-7 minutes. Uncover and cook until the liquid evaporates and the zucchini starts to sizzle, 7-10 minutes.
Continue to cook until the zucchini is very soft, dark green, and reduced to about 1 cup, another 20 to 25 minutes. When you see a build up of browned bits on the skillet, add a couple tablespoons of water and stir, scraping up the browned bits. Repeat anytime more browning occurs. If you see burning, deglaze with water and lower the heat. (Caramelized zucchini can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a week; it also freezes well.)
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the zucchini is about done, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Reserve 2 cups of pasta water, then drain the pasta. If the zucchini is ready before the pasta, keep cooking it; the zucchini will only get better the longer it cooks.
When the pasta’s drained, remove the herb stems from the zucchini. Reduce the heat on the zucchini to medium, then add the pasta, 1 cup pasta water, and the Parmesan. Stir until the pasta is glossed with sauce. Add more pasta water as needed to thin the sauce. Stir in the lemon juice and remaining basil, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with more basil, Parmesan and black pepper.
Total time: 50 minutes, serves 4.