One-Pan Pasta with Tomatoes, Basil, and Zucchini

One-Pan Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Basil and Zucchini
One-Pan Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Basil and Zucchini. Danette St. Onge
    18 mins
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When I first read on Food 52 about a magically easy-peasy Martha Stewart Living recipe for a pasta dish that would supposedly cook in one pan -- the pasta included! -- and with no preheating of water, I admit that I was skeptical.

If you read my recent article on the Top 10 Pasta-Cooking Myths, then you know that one of the main points was that I do recommend cooking pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling water, so that it will have the proper taste and texture and not stick together in a big, gluey mess. I referenced the great food-science guru Harold McGee's experiments with cooking pasta in minimal water (he wrote about his results in his column in The New York Times) in which he had some degree of success with drastically reducing the amount of pasta cooking water, but with the trade-off that you had to stir the pasta constantly while it cooked and it did not have quite the same texture and taste as pasta cooked the traditional way in an ample amount of water.

But it did sound intriguing, particularly when I learned that the idea originally came not from Martha Stewart, but an unnamed cook somewhere in Puglia, so I decided to give it a go. In fact, this technique for cooking pasta, in a somewhat similar way to risotto, is called pasta risottata in Italy, and while relatively new, it is not an American invention.

Stirring constantly for the 8 to 9 minutes that it took my pasta to cook was admittedly a bit tiresome, but in return, I didn't have to wait for a giant pot of water to boil, and I did have only one pan to wash after dinner, instead of a pasta pot, a sauce pot, and a starchy colander. 

And the results? To my surprise, the pasta turned out just right -- perfectly al dente, and the starch released by the pasta into the cooking water, together with the juices from the vegetables and the aromatic flavorings of the garlic and spices, cooked down to a rich, creamy sauce that coated each strand. I did make a few modifications, swapping onions out for shallots (the onions, I found, did not cook through in the few minutes it took the pasta to reach al dente consistency, leaving them unpleasantly crunchy) and adding in zucchini. 

Does this mean that every pasta dish I make from now on will be made in a single pan? No, absolutely not. This particular recipe works because of the type of pasta and types of vegetables that have been combined -- they can cook in the same amount of time and in the same amount of water, with great results. And certainly, there is lots of room for experimentation with other combinations. But not every combination would work this way, and in fact (as I describe below) when I tried tweaking the recipe by scaling it down, I did indeed have the unpleasant results I'd feared the first time.

I've since tried the recipe twice more, and the last time, when I tried to do a single-serving version with a quarter of the measurements, was a complete disaster. So I'd advise you to stick to the measurements given here and not try to scale it up or down too much, as it might throw off the balance and leave you with a sticky, gluey mess!

(Adapted from Food 52's adaptation of a recipe from Martha Stewart Living.)

What You'll Need

  • 12 ounces spaghetti or linguine (note that this is not an entire package)
  • 16 cherry tomatoes or 8 cocktail tomatoes (halved or quartered if very large)
  • 1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced into 1/8-inch-thick half moons
  • 4 to 6 large fresh basil leaves, finely chopped, plus a few more whole small leaves, for garnish
  • 2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes (depending on desired spice level)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, for serving (optional)

How to Make It

  1. Combine pasta, tomatoes, zucchini, basil, shallots, garlic, red chili pepper flakes, oil, salt, pepper, and water in a large straight-sided skillet or sauté pan (the pasta should lay flat - if necessary, I grant you permission to break it in half!).
     
  2. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil mixture, stirring and turning pasta constantly with tongs or a fork, until pasta is al dente and water has nearly evaporated, about 8 to 9 minutes.
     
  1. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, divide among 4 shallow pasta bowls, and garnish with basil leaves. Serve with additional extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan (if desired).