I know that living with an Italian means carbs are a reality, especially with pesto season upon us. So what was a girl to do?? Uhh…Trader Joe’s to the rescue!! Have you tried their gluten-free pasta made from quinoa and brown rice? I am in love. Indeed, even my boyfriend had a hard time discerning in a side-by-side taste test the difference, and mixed in with a flavorful herb dressing with lots of summer veggies? Win! And at less than $2.50 per one pound bag, you get several servings for an affordable price. Whatever variety of pasta you do use (or make), I think the bite-sized pasta shapes are best here, so save that bag of angel hair, linguine or spaghetti for summer tomato sauce dishes.
Now, I know what you are thinking: frying zucchini or summer squash? Won’t that be super greasy and heavy, on top of an oil-based herb dressing? Answer: no (and yes, I too was skeptical at first!). If executed properly, pan frying is actually a dry cooking method; the water in the produce steams away, and higher temperatures, thanks to the oil, produce a brown, crispy texture. The key is to keep the oil at the proper temperature, as oil that is not hot enough can seep into the food, and too hot oil can be a smokey mess (you can always use an air fryer and avoid all that). Be sure that when you add batches of the zucchini or squash, that it sizzles right away-and doesn’t just sit there in a pool of oil. Yes, you’re probably adding some extra calories here, but to help bulk-up the dish and dilute any frying oil that does make it into the zucchini, I added a ton (yes, a metric ton) of fresh veggies. Tomatoes, arugula, green onions, garlic…be creative with what you add in addition to the zucchini, and suit to what is in season. My additions were based on what was in my fridge/CSA box. A nice dose of lemon juice and zest really lighten this salad and make the flavors pop-so don’t skip the lemon!!
I used olive oil for the frying step, but please feel free to substitute any oil you’d like for this (yes, I do know that it has a lower smoke point than other oils). Virgin coconut, sunflower, grapeseed, etc. would work, too. But please, please use a good quality extra virgin oil for the pesto…it is a requirement, not a suggestion, since it is the basis for the salad’s dressing. Not a fan of nutritional yeast or it freaks you out? Then omit it, or add your favorite locally sourced hard italian-style cheese, such as romano, asiago, parmesan (look for a veggie rennet type if you’re a true stickler about this, as traditional is made from animal rennet) or even ricotta salata.
p.s.: I betcha a picnic or cookout would be a great occasion to make this! And, bonus! You can make it up to a day ahead of time, and let the flavors meld in the fridge. Boom! You’re awesome.
Fried Zucchini or Summer Squash Pasta Salad // plant-based, vegan, gluten-free option, soy-free, sugar-free, nut-free option // Serves 4 as a main, 8 as a side //
For the Zucchini/Summer Squash:
- 3-4 small/medium zucchini or summer squash
- 3-4 TB olive oil (enough to cover the pan bottom), or other oil for pan frying (air fryer users can skip that part)
- Sea Salt
For the Pesto:
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, or other fresh herb combination, like parsley and basil
- 4 TB extra virgin olive oil
- 1 or 2 large cloves garlic (2 if you like it super garlic-y)
- 1 TB fresh lemon juice
- 1 TB nutritional yeast
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts (use sunflower seeds or just omit entirely for nut-free), toasted
For The Salad:
- 2 cups gluten-free or other favorite pasta (I used Trader Joe’s Quinoa and Brown Rice Rotini)
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups tomatoes (I used small San Marzano; a similar cherry/grape tomato is perfect here)
- 1 1/2 TB capers, rinsed (salt packed or brined will both work), OR finely chopped kalamata or other quality olive
- 3 scallions/green onions, white and green parts
- 1 TB red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 4 heaping cups arugula or spinach
- Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste
- Nutritional yeast, if desired (or favorite hard Italian cheese) for topping
1. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, and cook pasta to al dente. Drain and set aside to cool a bit. While you wait for the pasta to cook, carry on:
2. In a medium to large pan, bring the 1/3 cup oil up to temperature over medium-high heat. Slice zucchini or squash into 1/4″ rounds. Fry in a few batches, to make sure the oil stays hot. The zucchini/squash should sizzle immediately when added to the oil. Cook until golden brown, then flip. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate or cooling rack to allow excess oil to drain, and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Repeat with remaining zucchini.
3. In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients for the pesto. If necessary, add a TB or two of water or more oil to help blend. Taste, and adjust seasoning.
4. Cut tomatoes into small bite-sized pieces, chop scallions into small rounds, and add to a large bowl or container. Add the remaining ingredients for the salad, fried zucchini, and the pesto. Gently toss in the cooked and slightly cooled pasta, and adjust seasoning/lemon juice and zest. Serve with freshly cracked black pepper and nutritional yeast, if desired. Pasta will keep for up to 4 days, covered in the fridge.
The zucchini and summer squash, all green and gold and glorious!
Cut into rounds…and ready to pan fry:
Fried and fabulous.
Ok-we’re making progress! The arugula, tomatoes, green onions, capers (I got my salt-packed capers from Fraboni’s Italian market in Madison. Love that place, and spend waaay too much when I go there! Fun Fact: my boyfriend’s grandfather had a butcher shop right across the street from the Fraboni’s on Regent street, back in the glory days of the Greenbush area in Madison!).
Ok, now for the pesto! You may toast your nuts (ha!) or sunflower seeds if you are using them.
Everything for the pesto into a blender or food processor:
And there you have it-a delicious vegan pesto perfect for this recipe OR for anything you’d like to use it for.
Now we gently toss everything together. You are done! Make sure to taste for seasonings and lemon-I usually have to spike mine with another pinch of sea salt. But do your thang!
Enjoy now, or cover and place into the fridge. You can snack on this all week, or share it at a summer picnic or cookout. Enjoy and HAPPY SUMMER!