This season I entrusted my first baby zucchini to a recipe from Stanley Tucci. This is a big deal for me as every year I have made our Nonna’s recipe for zucchini. I have done this for the last 40 years and although this might be a leap of faith, I’m confident in my decision.
Tucci is not quite in the stratosphere of Italian cooking like Hazan or Bastianich. Their cook books and a few others stand like sentinels among all the other cook books on my shelves. Their insight and direction are foundational yet I give all the credit for my understanding of Italian cooking to our Nonna and my Italian cousins and friends in Italy. But Tucci is formidable. I loved him in the Big Night and there are gems in every episode of CNN’s Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy that are undeniably Italian with a sense of authenticity that is rarely found.
Tucci’s Zucchini Pasta recipe is the perfect summertime pasta when you have a shortage of time and an abundance of zucchini. I'm also including Tucci's 20 minute Bolognese Sauce which goes against everything I know about making a classic Bolognese Ragù. Although it does stray from the traditional there are enough elements including the initial soffritto (and the commitment to the meat) that make worth giving it a try.
The take away from Tucci is his passion for Italy and his commitment to preserving the culinary and cultural history of regional Italian food. Although there may be variations on methods of preparation, there is no variation on our purpose and pleasure and as with all Italian cooks there are many ways to make the same dish buonissimo.
Recipes and Variations on Tucci
Stanley Tucci’s zucchini pasta is an Italian pasta dish from the village of Nerano, on the Amalfi coast. Its main ingredients are pasta, fried zucchini and Provolone del Monaco, a local raw milk cow’s cheese, at least 20% of which is obtained from the Agerolese cow. An endangered species, the Agerolese are particularly associated with the Sorrento and are known for their butter-rich milk.The origin of the name is linked to the history of how the cheese was sold, by farmers who wore a long, hooded cowls reminiscent of monks. Provolone del Monaco is not easy to find in the US. Tucci’s recipe uses a mixture of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Other recipes use caciocavallo cheese which is very similar. Source the smallest zucchini you can find. They will be more tender, have less seeds, less water and if garden grown taste much better.
Zucchini Pasta (Spaghetti alla Nerano)
6 medium zucchini, sliced into quarter-inch rounds
Sunflower oil, for frying
14 oz. spaghetti
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
2 to 4 oz. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Pecorino Romano (Provolone del Monaco, or Caciocavallo if available)
1 bunch fresh basil leaves
A pat of butter (optional)
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup reserved pasta water
Take thinly sliced zucchini rounds and deep-fry in sunflower oil until golden (or even slightly burnt).
Put fried zucchini on a paper towel to absorb oil; let sit in a bowl for a few hours to rest (or put in the fridge overnight). Before using, dab them again with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Boil spaghetti in lightly salted water until al dente. Save a cup of cooking water after draining spaghetti. Reheat zucchini in a frying pan with optional minced garlic. Place half of the zucchini into a clean pot or bowl, then add a few Tbsp. of cheese and a few Tbsp. of the pasta cooking water. Stir the mixture until cheese begins to melt. Add spaghetti, the rest of the zucchini, and cheese, and continue stirring until cheese and spaghetti water form a saucy emulsion. If the mixture seems too thick, add a bit more cooking broth. If it is too thin, add more cheese.Add fresh basil, butter, and black pepper, to taste. Serve with sprig of basil on top with basil flower, if you have it in a shallow bowl.
Variations on Tucci
Tucci's recipe uses sunflower oil for frying the zucchini. We prefer extra virgin olive oil.
Tucci's recipe uses a deep fryer to fry the zucchini. We use a high-sided frying pan with about an inch of oil.
We add whole garlic cloves to infuse the oil before frying the zucchini. Tucci lists garlic as optional and adds minced cloves to reheated zucchini.
Tucci lets the zucchini rest or transfers the cooled zucchini to a bowl and refrigerates it overnight. We skip this step.
Tucci uses a mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses which we agree with if Caciocavallo or Provolone del Monaco is not available.
We prefer unsalted butter. Sprig or torn basil as you like.
Stanley Tucci's just shared a 20 minute Bolognese Sauce on Instagram that goes against everything I know about making a classic Bolognese Ragù. For me learning to cook our Nonna's Bolognese was one of the first memories of learning to cook Italian. Bubbling like a cauldron, low heat and slow cooking are the secrets to an authentic Bolognese Ragù so that the rich flavors have a chance to develop. 20 minutes hardly seems enough time to make this full-bodied classic meat sauce from Bologna, the center of the rich, abundant food culture of Emilia Romagna. Tucci's does stray from the traditional but there are enough elements that make worth giving it a try. It is an easy variation for one of Italy's most iconic pasta dishes. You can watch Tucci comment on his recipe for Bolognese Ragù here on Instagram.
Stanley Tucci’s 20-Minute Bolognese
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound stewing beef, trimmed of fat, rinsed, patted dry and cut into pieces
1 pound country-style spareribs, trimmed of fat, rinsed, patted dry and cut in half
coarsely chopped onions, carrots and celery for a soffrito
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
½ cup dry red wine
spoonful of tomato paste
8 cups whole plum tomatoes (about two 35-ounce cans), passed through a food mill or puréed in a blender or food processor
3 fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
In a stew pot over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Sear stewing beef until brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from pot, set aside in a bowl. Add spareribs to pot and sear until brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove ribs and set aside in bowl with stewing beef. (If your pot is big enough to hold all the meat in a single layer, it may be cooked at the same time.)
Stir soffrito mix into pot. Reduce heat to low and cook until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in wine, scraping bottom of the pot clean. Add tomato paste to pot together with ½ cup warm water into tomato paste and stir to loosen any residual bits in pan. Cook to warm about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes along with additional 1 cup warm water. Stir in basil and oregano. Cover with lid slightly askew and simmer. Return meat to pot, along with any juices that accumulated in bowl. Cover with lid slightly askew and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Warm pasta water may be added to sauce, in ½-cup portions, if sauce becomes too thick.
Be careful not to add too much pasta water!
Variations on Tucci
We sauté the soffritto of diced onion, carrots and celery in extra olive oil and butter before adding the meat.
We use ground meat (beef, pork, veal).
As to seasoning. This is not a spaghetti, marinara or meatball sauce. While Tucci uses basil, garlic and oregano. We do not. We use just salt and pepper.
We do use a touch of nutmeg and milk.
We simmer the sauce low and slow for a minimum of 2 and a half to 4 hours.
We serve the ragù with tagliatelle pasta.