Penne with Zucchini, Basil, Mint and Pine Nuts

Under the Christmas tree at my in-laws' last year, there was a gift-wrapped Gap box with my name on it, about the size of a woman's sweater. Inside the box, layered carefully in tissue paper, were color print-outs of the covers of two cookbooks. IOU's from Santa for Rachel Roddy's forthcoming book My Kitchen in Rome  and Molly Stevens' All About Braising. So much better than a sweater! That Santa, he knows me so well.

When it was released in the U.S. in February, I tore through Rachel's book as hungrily as I tore through her blog when I first discovered it a few years ago. Rachel's evocative, cheeky writing; her journey to making Rome her home; and the fact that I wanted to eat every single thing; are just a few of the reasons that I've given the book as a gift twice since then. Plus, I share her passion for dishes that include no less than 1/4 cup of olive oil.

I once read that the biggest difference between (good) restaurant cooking and (most) home cooking is the proper use of salt. That's true, but I'd add another: the pasta cooking-water. One lesson I've really taken to heart from Rachel is her conviction that a generous slurp of pasta cooking-water stirred in at the end, once the pasta and sauce have been combined, really is the magic ingredient. I've learned to set aside my fear of diluting the sauce and to lean in, getting comfortable adding quite a bit. I use a mug, as the handle is easy to dip onto the pot, and I find the volume is about right. I use about 2/3 of a mug of pasta cooking water for a dish of a pound of pasta. It adds the little extra something you didn't know you were missing before. It prevents the whole mess from getting dry, and it binds sauce and pasta together like nothing else can. What pasta cooking-water hath drawn together, no man can break apart.

With this new "secret weapon," I've been making a lot more pasta lately, both old stand-by's and new loves. Rachel's book has a recipe for long-cooking zucchini in olive oil that is tossed with shredded basil that she recommends serving with pasta or fresh mozzarella. It made me think of a favorite recipe by Russ Parsons via The Wednesday Chef for zucchini braised with mint and pine nuts. Ever one to gild the lily, I decided to throw all these flavors together. The results were so winning the first time that Ryan and I mourned the end, after having it for dinner one night and the leftovers for lunch the next. I made it twice more within 10 days. If that doesn't send you running to the stove, I don't know what will! Fresh and bright from the mint, herbaceous from the basil, toasty and buttery from the pine nuts, and as pleasurably savory and filling as any well-sauced pasta. It's as comfortable being eaten in your leggings on the couch on a weeknight as it is in your prettiest serving bowl for dinner with friends.

Penne with Zucchini, Basil, Mint and Pine Nuts

2 lbs zucchini (approximately 7 medium)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for cooking the pasta
1 lb penne, or similar pasta
1/2 cup (packed) basil leaves
1/3 cup (packed), mint leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Prep your zucchini by trimming the ends and slicing them into coins about 1/4-inch thick. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over low-medium heat in a wide pan at least 4 inches deep. Peel the garlic and split it in half, removing the green inner stem. Add to the hot oil and let it sizzle until the garlic is fragrant and golden, but not burned. Discard the garlic cloves. Add the zucchini coins to the pan with a bit less than 1 tsp kosher salt, and stir to coat the zucchini coins with the garlic-scented oil. Turn the heat up to medium. Let the zucchini cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. The zucchini should be caramelized and quite soft, but still has some of its structural integrity.

While the zucchini is cooking, prepare the rest of the dish: bring a large pot of water to a boil for your pasta; toast your pine nuts; and julienne your basil and mint. Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserving a mug-full of the starchy pasta cooking-water near the end of its boil. 

When the zucchini and pasta are ready, combine them in one of the two pans, with a very big glug of the pasta cooking-water and the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil. Stir over low head until everything has combined and the zucchini has broken down a bit more into a creamy, glistening sauce. Taste and adjust for salt. Transfer to a large serving bowl, add the pine nuts, basil, and mint, and toss to distribute evenly. Serve immediately.