Penne with Pesto, Zucchini & Mushrooms

February 6, 2012 § 9 Comments

I think pasta is one of the most enjoyable foods to cook. I can’t really explain it, but I have a lot of fun with pasta. Part of that is because it is such a broad category with almost endless variations – you can really throw just about anything into a pasta and have it turn out well. You just have to exercise some restraint. The secret is to not overwhelm the pasta with sauce or other ingredients. Despite the endless variations, however, there are certain pastas I find myself making again and again. This is recipe for penne with pesto, zucchini and mushrooms is of them.

During the summer months, when Kitt’s garden is really taking off, we end up with a lot of basil and a lot of zucchini. This pasta is a great way to use both of these ingredients. I always enjoy pairing zucchini with cremini mushrooms because they not only taste great together, they also cook at the same rate. And one of the easiest ways to take advantage of lots of basil is to make pesto. We make huge batches in the summer, and then freeze several portions of it to thaw throughout the year – which is why I’m posting this in winter! For this recipe, you can use store bought pesto or make your own.

A quick note about pesto and this recipe. Pestos are bound to vary in consistency and taste. I made this recipe with a homemade pistachio pesto (recipe to follow!) which was very thick and salty. You may find your pesto to be oily or thin, and may want to add less than this recipe calls for so that your pasta doesn’t turn into an oily soup. Trust your judgment. If it looks oily to you, then it is.

Also, the pesto is added at the last minute. You pretty much want to kill the heat on your pan as soon as you add the pesto so the parmesan in it doesn’t start to cook.  This will release more oil and cause the pesto to separate. No good. Many Italian recipes I’ve seen actually call for tossing the pasta in a mixing bowl with the pesto. I prefer not to dirty an extra mixing bowl, but there is the inside information. Do with it what you will.

PENNE W/ PESTO, ZUCCHINI & CREMINI MUSHROOMS
3 ½ qt water
2 tbsp salt
6 oz dried penne
2 – 2 ½ tbsp oil
2 medium zucchini (about 10 oz), halved and sliced about a ¼ inch thick
12 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced about a ¼ inch thick
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp oil
1 shallot, minced (or brunoised, if that means anything to you)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 – 2 tbsp sherry or white wine
3 tbsp pesto

Bring the water to a boil in a large pot with the 2 tbsp of salt. It should taste pretty salty. You want this salt to cook into the pasta, otherwise all the other flavors in the dish will fade away into bland pasta. Gross. When the water comes to a full, rapid boil, add the penne. You’ll want to check it periodically as you cook the rest of the meal, and have a colander ready to drain the pasta. It’s done when it is cooked through, but still sticks to your teeth a bit when you bite into it. Al dente, as they say.

Heat a 2 qt sautee pan on high heat. Add the 2 tbsp of oil. When the oil is hot (you’ll notice streaks when it moves), sautee the zucchini and cremini mushrooms until they’re slightly browned and mostly cooked. Add in 1 tsp salt and ½ tsp black pepper, and mix thoroughly. When they’re finished, transfer them to a plate. For those following the recipe from “How to Sauté Vegetables,” note that I cut back on the salt for the veggies here, since the pesto will add saltiness to the finished dish.

Add in the next 2 tsp of oil. When the oil is hot, add the shallot and garlic, then drop the heat to medium. These are delicate flavors, and you only want to sweat them. Careful not to burn them. There should be some fond on the bottom of the pan leftover from the zucchini and mushrooms. Try to scrape this as you cook the shallot and garlic. When they are translucent, deglaze the pan with sherry or white wine. Allow the wine to cook down. This should release any remaining fond.

Return the zucchini, mushrooms and penne to the pan. Make sure everything is reheated all the way through. Turn off the heat on your stove, and then add the pesto. Mix thoroughly, so the pesto coats the pasta and veggies, and there aren’t any clumps or pockets. Taste, and make any necessary adjustments to seasoning. It is ready to serve when it tastes good. Enjoy!

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