Creamy Zucchini Pesto

The summer garden in our climate yields bumper crops of zucchini, basil, tomatoes, peppers and cucumber. We eat everything tomato: Caprese and Greek salads, spaghetti with meatballs, pizza, pasta with marinara, BLTs. Jars of sauces and salsa are put away for the winter. Peppers are dried for paprika, or roasted and peeled and tucked into the freezer. Cucumbers are pickled or chopped and preserved as relish.

But zucchini, oh zucchini, what do we do with you? Despite vowing to plant less every year, we always seem to find ourselves overwhelmed when we take a little stroll out to the garden.

another zucchini that got away

Another giant zucchini

(“Where did that one come from? I swear it was not here yesterday!”)

How do zucchini grow so fast? And what the heck does one do with all these zucchini at one time?  2 cups of shredded zucchini in a loaf of zucchini bread will barely touch the windfall.


A typical daily harvest of zucchini from the summer garden

Then there is the basil. It wants to be cut, over and over again, so that it does not set flower and die. But every time we trim the tops of the basil, it responds by branching out and rewarding us with even more of the fragrant leaves that beg to be cut, again and again.pesto ingredients

Zucchini and Basil

(This could be the start of something good)

Necessity is the mother of invention when cooking from the summer garden, and in this case an invention that is more than the sum of its’ parts. Pesto made with only basil is so flavorful it can be overwhelming at times, but using less leads to a somewhat dry pasta dish. Shredded and sautéed zucchini can yield a rich concentrated pan of creamy zucchini deliciousness, but one that is admittedly mild in flavor.  Mixing the two together is a great way to make a creamy, flavorful sauce for pasta, while maximizing healthy veggie intake by including all of that zucchini in the dish. Don’t be shy about using some of your larger, less than perfect zucchini for this recipe.

This sauce can also be frozen to enjoy some of that bounty of zucchini and basil in the winter.

Here then is the recipe for:

Creamy Zucchini Pesto.

For the sautéed zucchini:

6 cups coarsely shredded zucchini

¼ cup finely chopped onion (optional)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

Put the shredded zucchini in a large strainer and sprinkle it with the salt, mixing the salt in well with your hands.  Now let the zucchini sit to drain, pressing it down every once in a-while to push out any liquid. Let it sit for ½ to 1 hour, if you have the time. If not, you can just let it sit for a few minutes. The longer it sits, the more liquid you will remove from the zucchini. It your zucchini is especially watery It can also be placed in a dish-towel, which is then twisted up and squeezed hard to remove liquid.

In a large frying pan, heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, if using it, and saute in the pan for a few minutes until soft. Now add the zucchini to the pan.

raw zucchini in pan-1

Cook the zucchini over a medium low heat, stirring every few minutes until it is very condensed and is starting to brown. This will take 20-30 minutes or so depending upon the size of your pan and the temperature. 6 cups will cook down to about 2 cups at this point.

cooked zucchini in pan-1

Sautéed shredded zucchini

(This also makes a great side dish sprinkled with a touch of parmesan cheese) 

Turn off the heat and let the zucchini cool while you prepare the pesto.

For the pesto:

2 ounces (about 1/3 cup) chopped or shredded parmesan cheese

2 large or 3 small cloves of peeled garlic

¼ cup toasted nuts or seeds (you can use almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, pumpkin or sunflower seeds. I used sunflower seeds).

3 cups basil leaves (removed from the stems, washed and spun dry)

3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.

Put the garlic in a food processor. If the cheese is chopped in large pieces, add it to the food processor as well. If you are using shredded cheese, don’t add it yet. Pulse and scrape down with a spatula until finely chopped.

Adding nuts to the food processorAdd the nuts to the food processor and again process until finely chopped. I used roasted sunflower seeds in this batch.

Now add the basil leaves and process until finely ground. Gradually add the olive oil through the feed tube and continue to blend the mixture until it is a coarse paste, stirring down with the spatula several times. Add the zucchini puree to the food processor.Adding the shredded zucchini

Sautéed shredded zucchini being added to pesto mixture in the food processor.

Process the mixture until it makes a nice sauce.  If you are using grated cheese, now is the time to mix it in as well. (Consider your preferences when processing the sauce. If you like more texture, process for less time but if you like a very creamy smooth sauce, process longer).

completed pesto

The final zucchini pesto sauce

This makes enough sauce for 6 very generous servings (about 2 ounces of dry pasta per serving). Cook the pasta in boiling water until done and drain it. Reserve a bit of the hot pasta water to add to the sauce to heat it and loosen it. If you like your food very hot, you might also want to heat the sauce for a few minutes in the microwave or on the stove before adding the pasta to it. I put the sauce in a large glass bowl, big enough to hold all of the pasta and sauce, and add the hot pasta water to the sauce.(I use about 1/2 cup of the water or so, but it depends upon how cooked down the zucchini is). Then I heat it slightly in the microwave. Do not boil or overheat the sauce though!

Add the pasta to the sauce and mix it all together. Serve with a sprinkling of additional grated parmesan cheese if you like. I like to serve this dish with a side salad of fresh garden tomatoes dressed with a light olive oil vinaigrette.

the final pesto dish

Fettucine served with creamy zucchini basil pesto 

Nutrition Analysis per serving for sauce only (makes 6 servings):

180 calories, 8 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat

© 2015. Dayna Green-Burgeson RD, CDE. All Rights Reserved.

Pasta with broccoli raab and sausage

Broccoli raab (also called rapini) is a member of the brassica family.  The brassica family includes some of the more common vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Through our gardening adventures we have found that even the brassicas grown for their leaves, such as kale and mustard greens, will eventually form small heads that look like miniature broccoli before they go to flower. Usually once they are at this stage the greens and heads have become quite bitter and are past their prime. However in the case of broccoli raab, although in this picture it looks like a miniature head of broccoli, both the tender leaves and the small flower buds can be eaten.

Raw Broccoli Raab

Broccoli raab has a touch of bitterness, but there is also a unique nutty component to the flavor.  When it is sauteed, the robust flavor makes it a great accompaniment to grilled meats. Once we tried it, everyone in our family was hooked, so we decided to grow it in the garden this year. In our part of California, broccoli raab and other brassicas are primarily winter vegetables, so we planted it in early fall. It is easy to grow, the seed came up in a very short time, and once it was large enough to eat (but before it developed the yellow flowers) we harvested the tops and small leaves by cutting them with scissors and got another crop within a week or so. We cut these, and got a third crop and by then the plants were about spent.  So the fall planting is reaching the end of the harvest stage, and has now become entertainment for the wild bee population. However, we planted another batch and hope to get a harvest before the summer heat sets in.

Bees love the flowers of broccoli raab and other brassicas

As a simple side dish, I like to boil the broccoli raab and then saute it, in the same manner that I make my sauteed chard. However, it can also be used to make a delicious pasta main dish. One thing I love about this recipe is that it is a one dish meal.  It is also a versatile recipe as it can be made with broccoli raab or chard or other hearty greens.

For a batch to serve 4 use about 4 cups of chopped broccoli raab (This may be 2-3 bunches if purchased at the grocery store as the bunches in the stores are small). Other ingredients include 2 cloves garlic, ½ of a large onion, 1-2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, about 16-20 ounces of organic chicken broth and 4 chicken or turkey spicy Italian sausage (I like Trader Joe’s brand). Alternatively you can use 12-16 ounces of bulk Italian Sausage.  I often use Diestel brand which is a lower fat, locally produced product.

If you are a vegetarian you can skip the sausage (or use one of the excellent vegetarian sausages on the market) and use vegetable broth.

Sauce ingredients: Spicy Italian Sausage, Garlic, Onion and Organic Chicken broth

Finally, you need enough pasta for 4 people (about 8 ounces dry, you can read the label for serving size information). I usually use whole grain pasta, and for this recipe I used a whole grain rigatoni from Trader Joe’s.

I also used 4 large pieces of slightly stale levain bread from Acme Bread and another Tablespoon of olive oil to make the toasted bread crumb garnish. Any firm artisan style sourdough bread can be used to make the toasted bread crumb garnish, but you can also skip the bread crumb garnish and use grated dry cheese such as parmigiano, pecorino romano or a local dry jack cheese instead.

If the broccoli raab is a bit mature, break off the flower buds and leaves.

Breaking off the leaves from the tough stem

Discard the largest, toughest stems.

Stems to be discarded

Chop the buds, leaves and smaller stems coarsely.

Chopping the broccoli raab

Broccoli Raab ready to be cooked.

 Crush the cloves of garlic with the back of a cleaver to loosen the skins, then remove the skins and slice them thinly.

Thinly sliced garlic

Remove the skin from the onion and slice it thinly.

Thinly sliced onion

I find the casing of sausages to be a bit tough. If the sausage has a casing that is thick and therefore easily removed, you can remove it before cooking the sausage. However, this is optional.  To do this slice through the sausage casing lengthwise.

Slicing through sausage casing.

Then remove the casing from the sausage.

Peeling casing from sausage

Slice the sausage in half, then cut the halves into slices about ½ inch thick.

Sliced sausage

If you use bulk sausage, it can just be crumbled into the pan.

Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 1 Tablespoon of salt to the pot.

If you want to make the optional bread crumb garnish take the levain bread (or other dry hearty artisan bread) and tear it into pieces and then grind it into coarse crumbs using a food processor. Add a drizzle of oil and mix to coat the crumbs evenly. Bake them on a baking pan in a 325 degree oven for about 8-10 minutes (stirring once after 5 minutes) until lightly toasted. Be careful, they can burn very fast! Set aside.

Toasted bread crumbs

Now, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium high heat. Add the sausage and onion.

Sausage and onion in the pan.

Cook the sausage and onion, stirring occasionally, until well browned.

Sauteed onion and sausage

Turn down the heat to low, add the sliced garlic and stir it around for a couple of minutes more. Do not let the garlic brown! Turn off the heat.

The sausage mixture after turning off the stove.

Now plunge the broccoli raab into the boiling water and let it cook for 5-10 minutes until one of the largest stems, when pulled from the water and tested, is no longer tough.

Broccoli raab in boiling water

Scoop the broccoli raab out of the pot and into the pan with the sausage. Do not pour out the hot water, leave it boiling as you will be adding the pasta to it in a minute.

Broccoli raab being scooped into pan with sauteed sausage

Now turn the heat on the frying pan back up to medium high. Add 16 ounces of chicken broth and stir it all up. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down to a moderate simmer, and continue to cook while you are cooking the pasta. You want the mixture  to be somewhat saucy, so if  it gets too dry, add some more chicken broth. You can also add some water if necessary, but only add about ¼ cup liquid at a time.

The broccoli raab mixture with chicken broth added

Add the pasta to the water you boiled the broccoli raab in and cook it until it is done but not mushy (read the label for approximate times). Scoop it out, add it to the pasta mixture, and stir it all up.

Scooping pasta into broccoli raab mixture

Add more chicken broth or water if necessary, and cook the mixture until the pasta is all evenly coated and it is well blended and hot. You can keep it warm on a low heat for up to 15 minutes before serving at this point as long as there is plenty of liquid in the mixture.

The finished pasta dish

Put the pasta onto warm bowls or plates, and sprinkle with breadcrumb mixture (or grated cheese) and serve immediately.

Pasta with broccoli raab and sausage

© 2015. Dayna Green-Burgeson RD, CDE. All Rights Reserved.