penne zucchini tomato parmesan

Penne with fresh tomato and zucchini

3 September 2010

Since it’s Labor Day weekend ahead, this is probably my last summer recipe – a fresh, light and satisfying pasta dish made with zucchini and fresh tomatoes that you can throw together in 10 minutes while the pasta cooks. With this you can spend your last summer weekend lazing in the shade and at the end of the day still have a satisfying meal in no time.

This dish is so simple you really don’t need a recipe – my favorite kind of cooking. I have this wonderful cookbook called Italian Two Easy (follow-up of Italian Easy) by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of London’s famed River Cafe, a restaurant that serves the ultimate in simple Italian home cooking (though at a price that makes you wonder if you would rather have flown to Italy). The book has six pages of salad recipes like this – “Beet, tomato, capers” – with a gorgeous picture, a small paragraph of instructions and no measurements. I just love that. Fresh ingredients are all different – your tomatoes may be more acidic than mine, or sweeter. Your zucchini may be baby, or gigantic. Cooking is about tasting. In the beginning you make tiny tweaks and taste more often. With experience you’ll be more confident about how much salt is needed, or whether a drop of balsamic vinegar will brighten the sauce.

Which is all a long introduction to say that my recipe plugin is not working right (don’t ask me what that means), and I don’t have the usual recipe companion to this particular post. I promise to add it when I fix the technical issue. But I see this as an opportunity to free you from the rigidity of measurements so that you may create your own interpretation from your imagination, taste and ingredients on hand.

I think this dish is a perfect one-dish meal with bread, cheese and wine. But for a heartier meal it would also be wonderful with Italian sausage (saute the sausage before adding the veggies) or shrimp (add at the end with wine and herbs).

We’ll start with a quick chop of the zucchini (I used three medium here).

Throw it into a skillet with olive oil and a clove of garlic, chopped (or in my case, hastily squeezed through a garlic press). While it’s cooking…

…dice tomatoes (about 2/3 lb – in this case eight campari tomatoes). You could skin or seed the tomatoes, but I’m lazy and don’t.

Add tomatoes to the sauteed zucchini.

Season well with salt and pepper. If it weren’t for my kids, I’d also add crushed red pepper. While that’s cooking…

…mince some parsley. Basil would also be fantastic. Or even a sprinkle of dried oregano if you don’t have any fresh herbs.

Add herbs to sauce along with a splash or two of white wine or vermouth (which is what I used here).

Cook a minute or two longer, and we’re done. We don’t want to cook out too much of the juices, because we’ll want the pasta to soak them up.

Now toss the pasta with the sauce. Tossing the pasta is essential – in Italy they would never just spoon sauce on top of a bowl of cooked pasta, and neither should you. That method results in unevenly distributed sauce on top of sticky, gummy pasta. You can be lazy like me and toss the pasta in the skillet (though you have to do this carefully, as there isn’t much room), but don’t skip the tossing step altogether.

Another important tip: salt your pasta water. Italians say the water for cooking pasta should taste like the sea.

By the way, I used 2/3 lb pasta here, enough for two generous servings.

Serve in pasta bowl (bowl helps pasta retain heat).

And cover with freshly grated Parmesan. Fresh mozzarella would also be a wonderful companion if you used basil, and crumbled feta would be fantastic with oregano. Goat cheese would also be delicious with anything. Basically you can’t go far wrong with cheese.

And now…mangia. Buon appetito.

By the way, if anyone is interested in an inside look at the River Cafe, Gwyneth Paltrow wrote in her newsletter Goop about her experience working for a day in the River Cafe kitchen earlier this year. I think it’s the only time I’ve been envious of a celebrity. Check it out here:

Gwyneth Paltrow’s day working at the River Cafe

Penne with fresh tomato and zucchini
A fresh, light and simple summer pasta.


  • 2/3 lb penne pasta
  • 3 medium zucchini
  • 2/3 lb fresh tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Fresh parsley, chopped (fresh basil would also be great, or dried oregano)
  • White wine or vermouth
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese


  1. Put large pot of water on stove to boil.
  2. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/4-inch half moons.
  3. Chop garlic clove.
  4. Dice tomatoes.
  5. Chop a handful or two of fresh parsley (or basil).
  6. When pot of water boils, add salt (Italians say pasta cooking water should taste of the sea) and penne.
  7. Heat large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil to glaze the bottom of the pan (approximately 2 T). Add chopped garlic and zucchini. Cook, turning occasionally, until zucchini starts to brown.
  8. Add diced tomatoes. Season well with salt and pepper, to taste. Add a dash of crushed red pepper if desired. Stir.
  9. Add fresh herbs (or 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano).
  10. Add a splash of white wine or vermouth. Taste to check balance of flavors. Add more salt, pepper, crushed pepper or herbs if desired.
  11. Cook another minute (tomatoes should be very soft, and there should still be some liquid below the vegetables). Turn off heat.
  12. Drain pasta when cooked (penne should be soft but still have a firmer bite in the middle). If there is room in skillet to mix, add penne to the skillet and mix. Otherwise, put both in large bowl to toss.
  13. Serve pasta and top with a generous amount of grated Parmesan.

Makes two generous servings.

Here’s a link for the print version:

Penne with fresh tomato and zucchini recipe for printing

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharice 3 September 2010 at 10:58 am

I can’t wait to make this…it looks so good! Thanks for sharing!


cg 3 September 2010 at 4:42 pm

let me know how it turns out – or if you come up with something even better!


Margaret 3 September 2010 at 2:55 pm

Anna can make this for Vic when your parents are visiting you.


cg 3 September 2010 at 4:44 pm

or they can eat out and enjoy their young married life with no kids. =P


Irene Lano 20 October 2014 at 3:53 pm

This penne pasta recipe was delicious. My family enjoyed this dish!

Happy cooking!


cg 23 October 2014 at 10:21 am

hi irene – so glad your family enjoyed it! thank you for letting me know. =)


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