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How to cook zucchini: make a sauce for whole grain pasta or rice

Updated on September 6, 2015
Whole grain rotini with zucchini sauce
Whole grain rotini with zucchini sauce


Zucchini is usually a fairly easy vegetable to find, but not everybody knows how to cook it in an appetizing way. Most often unwanted zucchini finds its way into breads and cakes, but did you know it can be turned into a delicious pasta sauce?

Try this sauce on your favorite pasta, and you may never look at zucchini the same way again.

Fresh zucchini
Fresh zucchini
Slicing zucchini
Slicing zucchini
Garlic and chopped parsley
Garlic and chopped parsley

Preparing the ingredients:

Though this is a zucchini sauce, you can use yellow squash or any tender summer squash in place of zucchini. Ideally you want to select small to medium sized zucchini since they are more tender, sweeter and not as seedy inside.

Here is a list of what you will need:

  • 3 medium sized zucchini or 6 to 7 tiny zucchini
  • 2 to 3 tomatoes (optional)
  • 5 to 7 garlic cloves, halved or chopped
  • 1 yellow onion (optional)
  • fresh parsley and fresh basil (optional)
  • 13 oz whole grain pasta or 1 pound regular pasta
  • extra virgin olive oil

Peel zucchini if desired and slice into coin or disc shapes.

Optional step: peel and core tomatoes, and put in a larger pot.

Halve or chop garlic, and chop several sprigs of parsley (optional) with fibrous stems removed.

Halve and slice a yellow onion (optional).

Tomatoes added in sauces will often enhance the flavor of other ingredients
Tomatoes added in sauces will often enhance the flavor of other ingredients
Zucchini sauce ready to cook
Zucchini sauce ready to cook
Cooking down the zucchini sauce
Cooking down the zucchini sauce
Adding onion to zucchini sauce
Adding onion to zucchini sauce

Cooking the sauce:

Adding tomatoes to your sauce will enhance the flavor, but you can go without tomatoes if good quality tomatoes are not readily available. If you use them, add the prepared tomatoes to a larger size pot and cook on medium heat or slightly higher. Be sure there are enough tomato juices in the bottom of the pot so that the tomatoes will not burn. If you choose not to use tomatoes, you can just fill the pot with about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of water.

Once some juices have come out of the tomatoes, add the sliced zucchinis and stir. Cover, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Within 5 or so minutes, the pot should start to fill up with water contained in the vegetables. When this happens, remove the lid so that some of the water can start cooking out of the sauce. Continue to stir frequently to prevent the bottom layer from burning.

At this point you can add the chopped onion. Continue cooking down the sauce for about 10 to 20 minutes, stirring regularly. You will want to cook the zucchini until many of the pieces start falling apart. At this point you can add the garlic and optional parsley, and let them cook for about 5 or 10 more minutes.

When the centers of many of the zucchini rounds are no longer in tact, the sauce is cooked enough to serve. At this point, stir in some olive oil (probably about 1/8 to 1/4 cup, or 2 to 4 tablespoons) and turn off the heat.

Zucchini sauce when finished cooking
Zucchini sauce when finished cooking
Boiling whole wheat rotini
Boiling whole wheat rotini
Straining the pasta
Straining the pasta

Cooking the pasta:

It is a good idea to use a very large pot to boil pasta. This is because pasta has a tendency to boil over easily, and having extra water keeps the temperature higher when you add the uncooked pasta. A 1.5 gallon pot is suitable (only filled 1/3 to 1/2 way with water) for at least 1 to 2 pounds of pasta. Smaller pots can be used with good results, but you will have to be sure the pasta doesn't boil over. If foam rises to the top and threatens to spill over, blow on it until it shrinks down to size and stir the pasta.

Choose whatever type of pasta or noodles you would like. Whole wheat rotini works very well for this dish, but you can use any type.

To cook, add a small palm-full (say a tablespoon or so) of salt to water (optional) and bring to boil. Add pasta or noodles of your choice, stir, and cook until they are tender through to the center. You can judge the tenderness by pulling a noodle out and either cutting it in half or tasting it. A cut piece of pasta that is under-cooked will still be white or lighter color inside.

Be sure to stir a couple of times during the cooking process. When pasta is cooked, carefully pour pot contents into a colander to drain out the water. For al dente pasta, you will pour the pasta out just before the very center becomes tender, since the pasta will continue to cook even after it is drained.

Stirring zucchini sauce into pasta
Stirring zucchini sauce into pasta
Adding fresh basil to pasta with zucchini sauce
Adding fresh basil to pasta with zucchini sauce

Serving the pasta

Once the pasta has been dumped into the colander, it can be a good idea to run some cool water into the bottom of its cooking pot to cool it down a bit, so you can use the pot to mix your pasta with sauce without overcooking the pasta. Once it has cooled some, dump the water down the drain (but not on the pasta). If you make the pot too cold, it will make the pasta cold too, so just cool it enough to stop the cooking.

Either in your slightly cooled pot or in an oversize bowl, add the pasta and stir in finished zucchini sauce. Add more olive oil if you'd like, and and a good handful of fresh basil leaves either chopped or broken by hand. Stir well and serve with salt and pepper to taste.

Pasta with zucchini sauce
Pasta with zucchini sauce


As far as I know, this is not a traditional pasta dish. It is something that I wanted to try, and this is the first time that I have made it. The results were wonderfully yummy.

What is al dente? The literal translation is "with teeth", referring to the fact that the pasta is chewable and is not overcooked.

Italians take their pasta seriously, and if the pasta is not cooked al dente, it is a real problem. In this country, al dente pasta would probably be considered under cooked, and it might even get sent back if served at a restaurant this way.

An Italian acquaintance of mine gifted me with his old Italian to English dictionary. One day when flipping through the Italian section, one phrase stuck out: "these noodles are mushy". I found this highly amusing, since this phrase wouldn't really be beneficial for an Italian to use in English speaking countries, but the authors of the dictionary must have felt it was very important to include. I can imagine the puzzled look on a server's face when they were told that the noodles they served were mushy. Aren't all noodles mushy?

And why the salt in the water used to boil pasta? The salt flavor infused into the pasta makes the pasta flavor more appetizing, but there may be other reasons for this as well. If I remember correctly, salt makes water boil at higher temperatures. Maybe pasta cooked in higher temperature water has a better quality? If anyone knows the purpose of salting the pasta water, please share in the comments below.

Another way to use it

Zucchini dip for bread
Zucchini dip for bread

This batch of zucchini sauce was made using yellow tomatoes. It made an excellent dip for crispy home baked pita bread.

Another similar batch to this was made adding chopped raw cilantro at the end instead of basil for use as a dip for bread or chips. It came out delicious.


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