Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cheap and cheerful: Carmelized onion, pancetta and zucchini pasta

From Victoria Abbott/Mary Jane Maffini

The other night, we had a very disappointing experience with a recipe from a well-known (no names) chef. Yuck. We could not eat it! MJ was convinced that it was the process, not the ingredients. Today is a grey and snowy winter day and of course, post holidays we’re inclined toward cheap and cheerful.  We decided to experiment with what we had in the fridge and cupboard to see if we could do better.  


We could indeed.
Here's what we came up with using what we had in the house.

Here's all we needed:
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/3 lb pancetta (Pancetta is a type of Italian bacon, so cured, but not cooked) cubed. I used the President’s Choice, already cubed (ha!).  You can substitute bacon if that suits.
2 small zucchini sliced (or whatever you have – I think peppers would be nice)
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
Enough of your favorite pasta for two (we used tri-color rotini because we had a lot of it).
Good extra virgin olive oil (enough to cover your frying or sauté pan). Our best pan is 13 inches, but smaller is fine.
All you need to do is:

Heat oil, sauté the onions for about ten minutes, until they soften. You can use the time to slice the zucchini, which if you’re like me you have forgotten to do. Or you can take pictures of your favorite oven mitts for fun to kill time.  

Slowly carmelizing onions while you do something else is one of the great cooking secrets. The taste changes amazingly and really, it’s so easy. 

When onions are translucent, add pancetta and sliced zucchini. Cook on low to medium heat. Adjust so they cook slowly, but just enough to brown the zukes.

Keep cooking until pasta is ready, which reminds me: Meanwhile cook your favorite pasta until al dente or more cooked if you prefer.  Ten – twelve minutes. Your choice.
Drain pasta. Add to pan if it’s big enough to hold the pasta.  We like the bigger pan because we can do that. Otherwise add onions, pancetta and zucchini (and pan juices) to the pasta.   Top with grated Parmesan cheese (if you’re cheap and cheerful) or with fresh Parmegiano-Reggiano if you’re feeling fancier or more authentic.  Of course, you can use whatever cheese you have, which is what we often do.
Serve from pan or platter. Do not do as MJ did and pop a vintage platter (a one dollar garage sale find) into the microwave without noticing that there was still faded gold trim on the edges. Yikes!  Microwave is still working, but the phrase ‘too soon old too late’ smart comes to mind.

Serve.  You can add pepper,  but  you may not need salt because the pancetta is salty.  Test first.

Truth in advertising: the rotini tasted great, but wasn't that photogenic. So we tried it another time with fettuccine.  Perhaps no beauty either, but it delivered the taste.

We were very happy with this result and thought it was good enough for company. Pasta and veggies are great for keeping up energy and we need it as we come down the home stretch on the second in the book collector mystery series, The Sayers Swindle.

What about you? What's your favorite cheap and cheerful meal? 

Victoria Abbott is Mary Jane Maffini and Victoria Maffini (seen above trying not to look too wicked. Maybe that needs work).  
Their first collaborative effort The Christie Curse: a book collector mystery comes out March 5, 2013
Visit them at www.victoria-abbott-com

Sign up for the mailing list and you may win the draw for a copy of Agatha Christie's And Then there Were None. 


  1. Oh go ahead and name names... I am thinking Giada (never trust a skinny cook). And I got sucked in by the Sam's Club/Costco HUGE box of tri-colored pasta as well... Tastes fine, looks dark and drab and surprisingly colorless... Still have a bunch left.

    Very excited about your book coming out. Agatha Christie was my first author crush. 12 year old me first discovered that an author would have a style of writting (and then I read an Hercule book back to back with a Miss Marple and that just blew my mind... I was a book geek even at 12).


  2. Not Giada, but I take your point, Dave. It's a Canadian chef (so harder to guess!).

    I also had a crush on Agatha and I still remember the first time she introduced Hercule's slightly acrobatic eyebrows. Can't remember the exact book, because I inhaled them all and usually ended up buying the US version with a different title after I'd read the UK book. In Canada, often both were available. I ended up rereading so many. She was my hero (ine)!

    Thanks for coming by!

  3. I'm not a huge zucchini fan (I like zucchini bread, but that's about it) but everything else sounds great. I often rummage in my cupboards and add to pasta for a meal. Actually I enjoy macaroni and cheese with Frank's red hot sauce and/or bacon!

    1. I think this would be really good with peppers (any kind)!
      Mac and Cheese, mmmmm. I hear you!

  4. I think I should treat myself to a copy of The Christie Curse since it's coming out on my birthday. Thanks for the recipe!

    1. Happy birthday to come, Nancy! Mine is the next week. Pisces rule and all that. I'll be celebrating the book as well.

  5. So funny, because I, too, tried something recently by a big name that flopped big time. The flavor was fine, but it collapsed. Certain I must have dome something wrong, I stupidly tried it a second time -- with the same results. Oy.

    I confess that caramelized onions with a little garlic are delicious over pasta, even without any veggies. Bad, bad Krista. Yummy anyway!

    ~ Krista

    1. Of course, carmelized onions are veggies, even if they're more like, say, chocolate, in their taste appeal. Got to love that trick of theirs.

  6. A brilliant recovery! Well done. Yes, caramelized onions is a wonderful addition to most every savory dish.

    1. You're right, Libby! I make them every chance I get.

  7. Anything with pancetta and grilled onions! Who cares what it looks like, but I think it looks pretty darned good.

    Love seeing the pictures of both of you at the top.

    ~Best, Avery / Daryl

  8. Thanks, Avery/Daryl! Pancetta can perk up anything that isn't dessert and even then ...