Pasta With Creamy Zucchini Pesto

June 24, 2020
19 Ratings
Photo by Anna Billingskog
  • Serves 4
Author Notes

This simple, sublime pasta makes good use of summer’s bountiful zucchini. The zucchini-packed pesto is inspired by the filling for Evan Funke's cestini (a stuffed fresh pasta in the ravioli family) from the cookbook American Sfoglino. Funke makes it by searing thick rounds of zucchini in a skillet until well-browned, then pureeing them in a food processor along with ricotta and basil.

To boost the caramelization and concentrate the flavor even more, I like to shred the zucchini first, a technique I learned from Jennie Cook’s Zucchini Butter, a Genius recipe on this site. From there, the pesto comes together easily: Pulse pistachios and basil together with olive oil and lemon zest, add the caramelized zucchini, whir a small amount of ricotta to make the sauce extra smooth and luxurious, then finish with a squeeze of sunny lemon. Toss with your favorite pasta and lots of grated cheese, and dinner is served. It’s slightly more work than a traditional pesto genovese, but the layers of bright, nuanced flavors are well worth it.

A note about the ricotta: I love the rich creaminess that it brings to the pesto, but for a lighter, more vegetable-forward version, feel free to leave it out. The sauce is delicious either way.

The rest of the recipe is equally flexible. Use other soft herbs and greens (such as parsley, arugula, and mint) in combination with, or in place of, the basil. Swap out almonds or pine nuts for the pistachios. Experiment with different types of pasta—I usually gravitate towards long noodles, but virtually any shape will stand in nicely. —EmilyC

What You'll Need
  • 1 1/2 pounds zucchini and/or summer squash (about 3 medium)
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt plus freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted roasted pistachios (shelled)
  • 2 cups to 2 1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated zest + 1 tablespoon juice (or to taste) from 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup whole-milk ricotta (see author note above)
  • 1 pound linguine (or spaghetti, fettuccine, tagliatelle, or pappardelle)
  • 1 cup finely grated Parmesan (or a mix of half Parmesan/half Pecorino), plus more for serving
  1. For the creamy zucchini pesto: Trim the ends of the zucchini but don’t peel them, then coarsely grate. (Tip: use the shredding attachment on a food processor for easy work). Gather the shredded zucchini in a clean towel, and squeeze a few times to remove water (this will aid caramelization).
  2. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the shredded zucchini, garlic, and a few big pinches of salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, scraping up any caramelized bits from bottom (lower heat if the zucchini is starting to burn). It should be lightly caramelized in spots, and very soft and almost jam-like.
  3. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, add pistachios, basil, lemon zest, and 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Pulse several times until the pistachios and basil are coarsely ground. Add the cooked zucchini (no need to cool it first). Pulse a few more times, then add the ricotta plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper, and add more lemon juice, to taste. Use immediately, or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to a day.
  4. For the pasta and finishing the dish: Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and pasta; cook until al dente according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
  5. Add the creamy zucchini pesto to the linguine, along with the parmesan and 1/4 cup of the starchy cooking water. Toss to coat the noodles evenly; it’ll seem like a lot of sauce, but it’ll nicely meld with the pasta after a few good tosses. Add more cooking water, as needed, to thin the sauce (note: I usually add close to the full cup). Divide among plates, and top with more parmesan. Serve warm.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • eluu
  • EmilyC
  • Sofia Borden
    Sofia Borden
  • Emily

Recipe by: EmilyC

I'm a home cook. I love salads. Two things you'll always find in my refrigerator are lemons and butter, and in my pantry good quality chocolate and the makings for chocolate chip cookies.

12 Reviews

eluu March 7, 2022
I was cleaning up my fridge and had so much zucchini, a wilting bunch of basil, and a toddler who is starting to refuse his greens... so I made this - even without the ricotta, this pasta is still luscious and absolutely delicious! I added some freshly shelled peas and shredded chicken from a rotisserie.
EmilyC March 7, 2022
Wonderful! Even better that it was a good 'clean-out-the-fridge' meal. : ) Thanks for trying it and circling back.
Sofia B. January 28, 2021
This recipe is soooooo good!!
Will mention that I subbed 2 cups spinach for the basil because I didn’t have it. But honestly will continue with the spinach because it was amazing (although I know basil would be amazing too) anyway - so easy, flavorful and fresh. Make it!!
EmilyC January 28, 2021
So happy you tried and liked this, Sofia! Thanks for your note!
Emily July 13, 2020
Excellent recipe and great way to use some of my summer zucchini bounty! I substituted mascarpone cheese for the ricotta since that's what I had on hand. Also tossed with halved cherry tomatoes at the end (more farm box goodies!).
EmilyC July 14, 2020
Yay to finding a good use for bountiful zucchini! : ) Thanks for your note, Emily -- so glad you liked this!
judye July 9, 2020
This was fantastic! Subbed goat cheese for the ricotta and added some oregano and red pepper flakes.
EmilyC July 9, 2020
Wonderful -- so glad you liked it, judye! Thanks for circling back!
Teri June 30, 2020
This is absolutely brilliant! It is virtually impossible to ruin and so adaptable. I have made it to the recipe and it was awesome. The next time I used 1 c basil, 1/2 c cilantro, cottage cheese instead of ricotta, almonds instead of pistachios. Added some crushed red pepper. It was marvelous. The pesto even works atop toast with a fried egg for breakfast. I could happily eat this every day and I just might get to if the contents of my farm box keep giving me zucchini.
EmilyC June 30, 2020
What a nice note to receive -- thanks Teri! And thanks for sharing your tweaks -- so helpful to know what works well for others! (Love the cottage cheese sub, btw.)
Shanka-doo June 28, 2020
How is this not a Genius Recipe? I made this and it’s absolutely heavenly. I had a cup of basil, so I supplemented the rest with mint and parsley. I also had a gramolata that I made from pistachios and green olives from a recent dinner, and added a spoonful, which kicked it up a tiny notch. I will make it over and over again!
EmilyC June 28, 2020
So happy you liked this, and the addition of mint and parsley sounds great, as does the gremolata (I’ve made up the difference with baby arugula in the past.) Thanks so much for trying this and circling back!