Serves 6 as a first course or 4 as a main course
In this recipe, careful cooking brings out the wonderful flavor of fresh zucchini to make a lovely dressing for maccheroni (or other pasta). Select small, firm zucchini, though—preferably right from the garden!—and if you can, pick, or purchase, zucchini flowers at the same time. They make the dish especially festive. As name all’Aquilana suggests, this has distinctive touches of the cooking of Aquila, the high inland province of Abruzzo: you can’t miss the fragrant presence of saffron, and the sauce’s final enrichment with egg yolks is a typical embellishment in regional kitchens. All together, this is a flavorful and satisfying first or main course. It’s thoroughly vegetarian—though you can use poultry stock in place of water for a somewhat richer dish.
- ¼ teaspoon toasted saffron threads
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 4 or 5 small, firm zucchini (about 1½ pounds total, or 1 pound zucchini and 24 fresh zucchini flowers)
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 3 cups or so hot water or light poultry stock
- 1 cup finely chopped scallions
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 2 large egg yolks for cooking and finishing the pasta
- 1 batch (1 pound) Homemade Maccheroni alla Chitarra
- 1 cup freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano for a milder flavor), plus more for passing
- Extra-virgin olive oil, best-quality, for serving
You will need a heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan, 12-inch diameter or larger.
To toast the saffron threads:
Carefully drop over a low open flame for just a few seconds, toasting the threads very gently-the perfume will tell you it’s working! Before they overheat, spill the threads out of the spoon into a bowl for steeping or grinding, as called for in the recipe. Put the toasted saffron threads in a small dish with 2 tablespoons of hot water, and let them steep.
To cook the maccheroni:
Heat a large pot of well-salted water (6 quarts or more) to the boil.
Trim the zucchini, slice them lengthwise into thin strips, then cut the strips into thin 2-inch- long matchsticks. If you have zucchini flowers, trim off any remnants of stem, pull out the inside filaments (the flower’s stigmas), and chop the flowers into fine shreds.
Pour the olive oil into the big skillet, turn on medium-high heat, and stir in the chopped onion. Cook the onion for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until wilting and translucent but not browning. Ladle in ½ cup or so of the hot water or stock, and cook the onion in the bubbling liquid for a few minutes more, to soften.
Before the liquid evaporates, scatter the zucchini matchsticks (and, if using, the shredded zucchini flowers) into the skillet, and stir them in with the onion, then add the chopped scallions and salt. Cook over high heat, stirring, as the zucchini releases more juices. Let boil and reduce for a couple of minutes—again, don’t let the pan get dry—then ladle in another 2 cups hot water, stir well, and mix in the saffron threads and saffron-infused water, and the chopped parsley. Bring the sauce to a boil, let it reduce for a couple of minutes to tossing consistency, then lower the heat to keep it barely simmering while you cook the maccheroni alla chitarra.
For cooking and finishing the pasta: With the pasta water at a rolling boil, shake excess flour off the fresh maccheroni, and drop the strands into the pot, stirring and separating the strands. Return the water to a full boil, and cook the pasta for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, just until al dente.
Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks in a mixing bowl with a small wire whisk, and gradually whisk in the last ½ cup of hot water, to thin and temper the yolks.
When the pasta is cooked, lift out the maccheroni, drain briefly, and drop them into the skillet. With tongs, quickly toss the pasta in the simmering zucchini until the sauce is well distributed among the maccheroni strands.
Turn off the heat, and immediately pour the tempered egg yolks in a thin stream all over the maccheroni. Keep tossing and tumbling the pasta, to amalgamate the yolks in the sauce and cook them in the residual heat.
Next, sprinkle a cup or so of grated cheese over the maccheroni, toss well, then finish with a drizzle of olive oil.
Toss and heap the pasta in warm bowls, and serve immediately, with more cheese at the table.