Cacao & Zucchini Absorption Pasta Recipe

Zucchini & Cacao Absorption Pasta

Chose promise, chose due*, here is my take on absorption pasta, or risotto-style pasta. The idea of this technique is to coat the pasta with a little olive oil, add just enough liquids to cover, and cook until desired tenderness. According to Virka — who read it in the Italian paper La Reppublica so it simply must be true — this cooking technique dates back from the early 13th century, and was in fact the only one that was used before it was displaced by the now-classic boiling method.

For this first trial, I used the ricciole pasta that came in my package of Italian goodies, and followed Pascale’s instructions as a guide. I didn’t have stock on hand — I am a bad, bad person — so I just used filtered water: the flavor was fine, but will of course be richer if you use homemade stock, you Martha Stewart you. The pasta was cooked with thin sticks of zucchini (cut with my mighty mandoline — no fingers were sliced in the process, I’m getting better at this), and received a sprinkle of crushed cacao nibs and crispy flecks of aged Parmesan just before serving.

The crispy flecks of Parmesan are a fortuitous by-product of my recent attempt to make Parmesan wafers with the previously featured hunk of 3-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano. It turns out that this Parmesan is marvellous, yes, but much too dry and much too proud to let itself be turned into a vulgar wafer: the grated cheese didn’t so much melt as grill, and my golden circles just crumbled into bits when I tried to lift them from the baking sheet. Said bits were delicious however, so they were promptly recycled into sandwich garnishes and canapé toppings.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, the absorption pasta. So, how was it? It was lovely, that’s how it was — so lovely in fact, that I might stick to that technique from here on in. First of all, and however odd this may sound, I hate bringing pots of water to a boil — it is the most boring thing in the world. Since I am an impatient cook, I cannot help but lift the lid every ten seconds and, as we all know, watched water never boils, which is kind of a problem, especially when you’re hungry and thus cranky.

Secondly, the absorption method makes it easier to test the pasta for doneness: when you pluck one from the pan, you can taste it (almost) straight away, since it isn’t as scorching hot as when you lift it from a pot of boiling water. And once you have reached the consistency that you like, the pasta can go straight from the pan into your plate, without continuing to cook as it does when you have to drain it and toss it with the sauce. Finally, and more to the point, this technique allows a delectable coating of starch to develop around the pasta, giving it a toothsome, silky texture.

As the pasta softly simmered, I was quite surprised to notice that a scent of almonds wafted up from the sauté pan: I am not entirely sure whether that came from my olive oil, from the pasta itself, or a happy alchemy between the two, but I had never had that happen before. This scent had somewhat subsided by the time the pasta was cooked, but it was still a lingering presence in the finished dish, and went delightfully well with the softened zucchini, the toasty flecks of Parmesan, and the earthy crunchy cacao nibs**.

* Chose promise, chose due: a promise is a debt.
** Cacao nibs (éclats de fève de cacao in French) are tiny bits of rosted cacao beans, not sweetened or processed any further. They have an intense chocolate scent, and they are crunchy and nutty.

Chocolate & Zucchini Absorption Pasta

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
100 grams (3.5 ounces) short pasta, such as penne, fusilli or ricciole
Up to 1 1/2 cups very hot stock (or filtered water)
1 small zucchini, cut into thin sticks
Salt, freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cacao nibs (not chocolate coated), optionally toasted in a dry skillet, and coarsely crushed with a mortar and pestle
Grated Parmesan (or Parmesan flecks) for sprinkling

Makes one copious serving.
[The recipe can probably be doubled or quadrupled, but I have only tested it with a smallish quantity of pasta -- it may work a bit differently if you use a larger amount.]

Heat the oil in a sauté pan. Add the garlic, and cook for a minute over medium heat, stirring regularly, until fragrant. Add the pasta, and stir continuously for 2 minutes. Add stock or water to just about cover the pasta — about a cup — and lower the heat to medium-low. Cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. 5 minutes into the cooking, add the zucchini, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Taste the pasta for doneness: if it isn’t quite done and all the liquids have been absorbed, add a little more stock or water, cover, and cook for a few more minutes before tasting again. Adjust the seasoning. Transfer into a bowl, sprinkle with cacao nibs and Parmesan, sit down, and enjoy.

  • Aminda

    Clotilde,
    That pasta sounds delicious and I can’t wait to get home and try that method of cooking. In reference to the parmesan wafers you were trying to make — I used to work at an Italian restaurant where we made parmesan wafer “bowls”. To make them, I would shread the parmesan, toss in a couple of diced sun-dried tomatoes to the mix (of course, completely optional), and then toss a small handful of the mixture (perhaps a 1/3 of a cup?) into a hotly heated *non-stick* fry pan. The cheese bubbles like mad when you toss it it, then the edges turn a *light* brown, and using your tongs and a flick of your wrist, you must flip the parmesan wafers *fast*. Cook them 10 to 15 seconds longer, then place them on top an aluminum foil-wrapped soup can. Shape them around the base to form a bowl, of sorts, in which you can put a small salad (or whatever else). The principal is that for making tuile cookies – shape them fast before they harden into crunchy cheesy crackers. Of course, any that break are still delicious, just not as pretty. Hope this technique works!

  • http://www.lucullian.blogspot.com Ilva

    I read about this method some years ago but I had completely forgotten about it! Thanks for bringing it back to me, I will absolutely try it!

  • Cocoaloco

    I confess that I have been using a similar process for a number of years. I can’t deal with the boredom of waiting for a huge pot to boil.

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    how effective would risotto-style pasta be when cooking bigger batches? when i cook here at home, i cook for at least 15-20 people. =D

  • http://scally.typepad.com pascale

    I’m very happy you liked it. It’s true that it’s amazing and so simple.

  • http://dinewell.blogspot.com jamie

    I woke up this morning and this was exactly what I needed!! I had to tweak mine as to what I had on hand, but it turned out wonderfully.

    Thanks!!

  • rainey

    I’ve never heard of this method but really look forward to trying it since I’m crazy about risotto.

    Is there more direction for the relation of the pasta to the broth to the pan? It seems all the broth/water you *expect* to need is added at one time? Should this cover the pasta? Would it be worth trying to select the pan that would allow the pasta to be one-layer deep but as close as possible try to achieve the maximum submersion of pasta?

    Or am I unnecessarily complicating this?

  • http://nami-nami.blogspot.com Pille

    Am rather curious about this pasta-preparing method now – will have to give it a go soon. I’m mostly cooking for one during the week anyway, so this sounds like a great recipe to try.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Aminda – Thanks for the parmesan cup tip! I’ve done roughly the same thing using upturned bowls before, but not cans: the flat bottom must make it easier to balance the cup on the plate.

    Kayenne – I doubt it would work for 15-20 people, unless they’re happy with one spoonful each :), but I think the recipe could be scaled for four servings, provided the pan is wide enough.

    Rainey – I first added water to just about cover the pasta, and this was a cup. Once that was absorbed, I had to add another 1/4 cup for the pasta to cook to the al dente stage. Just like for a risotto, the amount of liquids needed will depend on the type of pasta you use, whether you cook it with vegetables that render water, and what consistency you’re shooting for. It is probably safest to err on the side of less liquids initially: you can always add more afterwards, little by little as the pasta drinks it up, but it would be a problem if you added too much (the dish would be too watery, or the pasta overcooked).

    As you suggest, it’s probably best to use a pan that accomodates the pasta in a single layer, not too crowded, but not too sparse. But since you stir the pasta from time to time as it cooks, you could have a bit more pasta or a bit less, I don’t think it would make much difference. (Also, I have just two sizes of sauté pan, one small and one large, so my choices are limited!)

  • Dermot

    Am new here and must say this site is inspiring!

    Just tried the absorption method and it turned out beautifully. I don’t have cacao nibs (not sure where to buy in Singapore), so used black pepper and chilli flakes liberally.

    I used egg pasta – I prefer egg pasta over the more common Italian purely-durum-wheat types – the egg makes it so smooth and creamy. Although egg pasta is more common in Switzerland, the one I cooked today was from Marks and Spencers =)

  • julietgb

    I saw this cooking metod in an italian blog (don´t remember where), and it was for cooking just spaghetti with tomatoes: cut the tomatoes in half and place them in a pan with half cup of broth or water, cook until you can smash them and then add large thin spaghetti on top of the tomatoes and more water, salt and cook until done. Have to stir all the time but it was the best pasta ever tried.
    Finally added some olive oil infused with pepperoncino and mangiare!!

  • Therese

    I’m intrigued! I still don’t quite trust the method but I’ll definitely try it – after all you have never disappointed me with your recipes! And I agree that waiting for the pasta water to boil can be so boooooring – and I have burnt my tongue countless times, greedily tasting the pasta to see whether it was done yet.

  • http://lobstersquad.blogspot.com lobstersquad

    Yes, very boring to wait for water to boil. I always cook pasta with water from the kettle. Very handy. Only works for a couple of litres, but it´s very quick.
    I´m very intrigued with this pasta method. Thanks for the tip!

  • Patti

    This sounds wonderful! I’ll have to try this – probably will throw in some chicken bits, too. Maybe toasted almonds instead of nibs, as the only nibs I’ve found locally are chocolate coated.

  • Kyna

    Toasted almonds sound like a very good idea – I’ve just made this with courgette and toasted chopped mixed nuts as no nibs at all (not even chocolate coated) are avaliable around here. It was very good indeed, the nuts added a suitable crunch and a very good flavour. My mother decalred them to be the best bit, but personally I think the joy of a whole new way of cooking pasta was even better.

  • http://sixandahalfstitches.typepad.com Alison

    The simplicity of this dish really grabbed me – so much so that I thought about it all yesterday, and went home and made it last night (minus cacao nibs, but I’ll get them another time). Wonderful. And then there’s left overs for lunch….mmmmmm. A really great way of doing pasta with minimal fuss and maximum taste.

  • Jessie

    Hello! This recipe was delicious. I made it with my roommate and brother. But we didn’t have cacao nibs, and used walnuts instead. It was delicious and nutty. I can’t wait to try it again. Thank you!

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    pardon for the confusion.

    i had meant scaling the recipe for 15-20 people. of course, not simply using the recipe as is.

    i’m more of asking about the ease and practicality of using the technique on cooking large batches. my main concern is the uneven cooking of the pasta when preparing multiple servings.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    All – I’m delighted that the recipe appeals and that you like the results! Substituting nuts for the cacao nibs must work well indeed.

    Kayenne – Oh, I had understood what you meant, I was just joking! And what I meant by my reply was that the technique can probably work for up to 4 servings, but that’s most likely a maximum…

  • http://www.thesoulofhope.com thesoulofhope

    wow that looks/sounds yummy!!

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    hehe ic… okay! great! thanks! i’ve actually been wanting to make rissotto for my family. but they keep on referring to it as “congee”… being chinese and all… sigh =/

  • http://na-zdravi.blogspot.com/ Dianka

    What an intersting technique! And the almond smell- sounds divine! I will definitely be trying this one! Thanks for sharing.

  • Eszter

    Dear Clotilde,

    I came across your blog in January and have been a diligent reader ever since. I also read all your previous posts which was a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening experience for many a nights in front of the computer. Been waiting for a suitable topic to comment on and absorption pasta is definitely one! Prepared it today for lunch, added broccoli instead of zucchini (I hardly dare to admit, its namesake might get hurt, but no offence meant, we love it dearly, only my stocks run out), my one-year old tucked it in like crazy and so did the rest of us. When I was trying to decide how much stock to add to 400 g of pasta it felt like molecular gastronomy came to my kitchen. Thanks for this and all the rest of your blog. Lots of greetings from Budapest, Eszter

  • rachmouse

    Ok. I tried this last night and it was amazing!

    I tried it with whole wheat penne – since I figured that would be a good test – it passed with flying colors – much better than the traditional boiling method. I used asparagus that I had previously roasted with salt and pepper and some quartered cherry tomatoes. I used parmesan (reggiano, of course!) but no zucchini or cocoa nibs. I also used veggie stock that I salted well but diluted 1:1 with water. I can’t get over how good this was – silky and tender and a great flavor. It was so good that I am trying it again tonight – this time with zucchini in addition to what I did last night.

    -mouse

  • http://triciacolianne.blogspot.com Trish

    My husband and I are dying to try this absorbtion method. I bet the pasta turns out so silky smooth. And the cacao nibs are a simply brilliant idea.

  • http://madeleines-project.blogspot.com ASMO

    I can’t wait to try this recipe, as I suspect this might be the secret behind a scrumptious red wine spaghetti dish which I had in Florence, during my honeymoon last year: spaghetti all’ ubriaccone (Drunken Spaghetti). This might even be the start of a new Madeleine (see my blog)…

  • Janis in Lyme, CT

    Told my husband about the absorbtion method for pasta this evening over dinner. Turns out his italian grandmother made pasta this way every day for lunch. Of course, as a good adopted American, she used margarine rather than olive oil.

    Janis

  • http://www.AcmeInstantFood.blogspot.com Kevin

    Thanks for this great new cooking method for pasta. I’ve never heard of it before and I can’t wait to give it a try. I too, use whole-wheat pasta so I’m glad to hear that another tried it and met with success. A literal (almost) chocolate and zucchini recipe! Cheers!

  • jackie

    I am embarassed to say it, but I have no idea what cocoa nibs are – am I missing out on something great?

  • http://www.thefoodsection.com Josh

    The method reminds me of Alain Ducasse’s “Olive Mill Pasta,” which I read about a while ago in the New York Times and made a few times (it’s excellent). The recipe is archived at the New York Times site, but I also found it reprinted on this site:

    http://labellecuisine.com/Archives/pasta/Alain%20Ducasse's%20Olive%20Mill%20Pasta.htm

  • Karen

    Yum! I will try this soon, although it seems a similar technique to the “one pot” mince and pasta dishes of the seventies. Another way of cooking pasta I love, expecially in summer or for large quantities is to place raw (dried) pasta in pot, just cover with hot water from kettle, bring to boil over high flames and then take of heat altogether when boiling. Put lid on pan and leave to stand for 10 minutes – Perfecto!
    Enjoy
    Kaz

  • http://www.genevestewart.com Geneve

    I had never heard of this cooking method before until I read your post. I’m interested to try it – the texture sounds great and I imagine it would hold sauces well.

  • haapi

    I second Josh. I have tried that Alain Ducasse recipe many times. It’s divine. Pasta cooked this way turns out very silky and soft, therefore, a more sensuous experience.

  • http://achickenineverygrannycart.wordpress.com ann

    i’m so excited to try this! it’s becoming far too hot to actually cook in my tiny oven of an east facing nyc apartment
    i love pasta, but generally have to give it up in summer b/c it is just too hot to cook
    thanks for this idea clotilde!

  • Emmet

    Growing up, my mother’s special company recipe employed this technique. She used penne with mushrooms and parm. She cooked it in 1/3 stock, 1/3 brandy, and 1/3 heavy cream, each added in separate additions. Quite rich!
    In response to the questions of scale, I’ve actually made this for a crowd of 25. The kitchen I was working had a huge range–six gas burners, bought from a failed restaurant. I put two huge baking pans that I didn’t care about scorching on the stove top. They were each at least 7 cm deep. I centered each pan across 2 burners, and with the help of a friend, stirred really, really quickly for about 45 min. It was quite an energy expenditure, and I didn’t get much time to socialize before dinner, but the guests loved it.

  • http://inpraiseofsardines.typepad.com/blogs/ Brett

    Every so often I make pasta with this method, the technique based on a recipe by Alain Ducasse in Patricia Wells’ Provence cookbook (similar to the recipe that Josh linked above). The only difference is that the method calls for cooking the pasta uncovered, so that the flavor of the stock concentrates as the pasta cooks. If you use water, I guess this wouldn’t be an issue. In an uncovered pan the pasta takes longer to cook than in a covered pan, usually about 15-20 minutes to reach al dente. The results are divine, though, and still quicker than waiting for the pot to come to a boil.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Jackie – I’ve updated the post above with an explanation on what cacao nibs are…

    Josh, Haapi, and Brett – Thanks for telling me about Ducasse’s recipe, I’ll have to give it a whirl.

    Emmet – Thanks for giving us your experience about the scalability of this method, it’s good to know!

  • http://absolutegreen.blogspot.com Virginie

    I heard this method from Pascale (C’est moi qui l’ai fait) and tried it recently. It’s excellent.

  • http://thinkwoman.blogspot.com liz

    clotilde, this was delicious. i substituted toasted pine nuts for the cacao nibs, a quarter of an onion, diced, instead of garlic, and went with half stock, half water. this method is wonderful–the pasta sauces itself. i imagine this would make an outstanding primavera.

  • http://www.mur.com msue

    I made this tonight with cassereccia pasta. My garlic had gone all soft, so I substituted minced onion and some shallots. I also used about 1/2 zucchini and 1/2 yellow squash. I used mostly homemade stock plus some extra water to make enough liquid.

    We did use the cacao nibs, and enjoyed them, but next time I want to try the toasted chopped almonds that others have suggested.

    Otherwise the methodology was as prescribed, and as mentioned by previous commenters it was wonderful. This method is far less bothersome than boiling pasta in a separate pot, making a sauce, and uniting them at the end. I, too, can imagine a myriad of variations. I would like to try this adding a little bit of heavy cream just at the end of cooking (just enough to give it some exta smoothness.)

    All in all it is a wonderful treat. Thank you for sharing the recipe and describing it so well, Clotilde!

  • Jasmin

    Yes yes yes! In Catalunya where I’m from, we do use this method for cooking certain pasta dishes, though not all. The only drawback is that depending on what you add to the dish it can take a while longer for the pasta to cook than with the usual boiling. One of the simplest dishes and a rustic old favourite is the Catalan version of pasta with a ragu sauce (though certain households par-cook the pasta in advance) – minced beef and minced pork, browned in olive oil, add grated onion (oh yes, the toil, the tears…), later grated ripe tomatoes and crushed garlic. Season well and add the dry pasta, coat it well in the sauce and after a couple of minutes add water in stages as needed until pasta is cooked. Yummy, warming, simple food. A few minutes before the dish is finished, you can even coat it with a light bechamel and a little bit of grated cheese and finish it in the oven. Winter heaven!

  • Emily Small

    I did this. It was lovely thank you. I did the penne with garlic and olive oil and chicken stock as directed. Then I sauteed chanterelle, morelle, and shallot in butter and mixed that into the cooked pasta and grated parmesean over top and that created a thickish slippery sauce that was delicious . . . thank you.

  • http://www.steppingstonescoaching.blogspot.com Sarah Raad

    never heard of this before and I so love a new idea! I’m off to try it!

  • http://artoeat.blogspot.com artoeat

    Since you posted this recipe I have used it many times with great success. I like the different texture the pasta takes on as well as the way it absorbs flavor. I received Cucina of Le Marche by Fabio Trabocchi for Christmas and on page56 he describes your method as a braising technique. He doesn’t give any historical background.

  • Lesa

    I tried the penne with zucchini above and it was fabulous. I used homemade broth not water…i dont think I would’ve liked it as much with water as the broth helps to flavour the pasta within. I was curious and tried the Spaghetti with tomatoes as posted above…lovely tiny vine ripened tomatoes from France. I was nervous about cooking spaghetti this way, and there was some breakage during the constant stirring (as recommended above) and I now realize that more broth was needed throughout the cooking…I was nervous to drown it, but in the end, it was a little too sticky. but i will try it again with more broth initially instead of adding constantly, until I uncover a set amount…which I will post when I find it. i love this method of cooking pasta! Thanks you.

  • Iris

    I made this for lunch.

    And I might have to make it for dinner, too.

    So so so good!

  • Rosie

    I realize I am over a year late on this post…I just bought your cookbook and am in love with it! This was the first recipe I wanted to try, but since I was at work and needed to stop at the store on the way home, I looked up the recipe on line. I have truly enjoyed reading everyone else’s comments, and I look forward to trying some of the variations!!

    I made this tonight with fusili (Barilla Plus, but so glad to know whole wheat works well, too), and I used garlic and zucchini. I used a good quality vegetable broth. I really want to try this with cacao nibs – the nuts others used would have been great, too – but I ended just adding a little bit of hazelnut oil at the end. It was DELICIOUS! The pasta comes out so well – I can’t imagine making pasta in boiling water anymore!

  • Liza

    Oh I must say…I just got my hands on cocoa nibs from Williams Sonoma here in Silicon Valley and made this dish according to your instructions, Clotilde. It came out amazingly flavorful, tasty, crunchy, nutty, and very well balanced. Thank you so much for such a wonderful recipe. I’ll use it again and again!

  • http://food.laurieashton.com Laurie Ashton Farook

    Yes, I’m commenting on a very old blog post…

    I hadn’t heard of this method of cooking pasta before, but given the results and, honestly, the fact that it saves time and hassles with draining pasta, I’m definitely giving this a try the next time I make pasta. It’s brilliant and one those things that I’m thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?” about.

  • Alice K. Small

    My daughter has been telling me for years about absorption pasta. Well I made it tonight and it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Yes I’m Martha Stewart (the fat version) so I used stock that I made with the cut out back bone from making chicken under a brick yesterday and I used imported pasta (“Pasta Forte”), arugula, ricotta salata and parmesan, and I can only say it was heavenly! Thank you so much.

  • Maus

    Tried the absorption technique for the 1st time last night using your recipe. My s.o. was skeptical about the chocolate but as usual everyone was very happy with the end result.

  • http://kidscooking.about.com Stephanie

    Not sure this is easier than boiling water, but I can definitely see how the taste would be richer and more dramatic. Alas, I, too, have no homemade stock on hand. Glad to know filtered water is a fine substitute.

  • http://www.theculinarypassport.com The Culinary Passport

    Tried this the other day on my blog. It was yummy (think I add a lot more parmesan though ;)

  • Cheryl

    I’ve made this a few times–love it. We’re not that familiar with cocoa nibs, so my husband ate his whole plateful thinking there was bacon in the pasta. He thought it tasted meaty, and of course, the crunch…..

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Delighted you’ve had good success with this recipe, Cheryl, thanks for writing!

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