Recipe: zucchini noodles, cauliflower steaks and crispy polenta (vegetarian)

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for pasta. While there are plenty of gluten-free “pastas” available, it’s zucchini season somewhere, so why not make your own.

grilled cauliflower steaks, zucchini noodles draining, and the final dish with polenta

As many pastas as there are to choose from these days, there seem to be just as many ways to make noodles from zucchini (also known as summer squash or courgette). You can slice with a box grater, mandoline, food processor, fancy peeler, or a plain old chef’s knife. To cook, you can blanch-and-drain, salt-and-sit, or just serve raw. I like to use a thick cut and blanch because it breaks down the cell walls more efficiently without falling apart, allowing for more water to drain out of the zucchini. And zucchini is very watery.

For the same reason, the tomato sauce here is very dry, reduced for much longer than you would for a real pasta. I make no claims for its authenticity (although my grandmother was Italian), but I should make a couple of notes:

  1. I like mixing dried and fresh herbs to get different layers of flavor, especially without a pasta to ground the sauce
  2. I use canned tomatoes because I can’t get really fresh ones, and
  3. As a migrainer, onions don’t really agree with me, but I recently started using nigella or black onion seeds. They give a nice onion-y punch without having to use very much.


Serves 4
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Equipment: 9 in (22.5 cm) round baking pan; coarse grater or mandoline with baton attachment; paper towels or 6 kitchen towels


2 1⁄2 cups (625 ml) water
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
1 cup (140 g) coarse cornmeal
3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) black onion seeds
1 tsp (5 ml) red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp (5 ml) dried oregano
1 tsp (5 ml) dried thyme
1 tsp (5 ml) dried basil
28 oz (800 g) canned plum tomatoes
1⁄4 cup (65 ml) white wine or 2 tbsp (30 ml) vinegar
1 5⁄8 lb (800 g) zucchini (summer squash or courgette), about 3-4 large
1-2 heads of cauliflower
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
fresh basil, thyme, and oregano for garnish


  1. Make the polenta: Bring water and salt to boil in a medium pot. Begin whisking the water and add the cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking continuously, until combined. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Spoon into an even layer in a 9″ round baking dish. Chill.
  2. Make the tomato sauce: Heat 3 tablespoons (45ml) of olive oil in a wide-mouth 6-quart stock pot (you want a wide pot to help remove as much moisture as possible from the sauce). When the oil is shimmering, add the black onion seeds and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about one minute. Add garlic, oregano, thyme, and basil (in that order = least-to-most delicate). Add tomatoes and white wine/vinegar. Bring to a boil, stirring to break up the tomatoes, then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 45 minutes or until mostly reduced.
  3. Make the cauliflower steaks: Remove outer leaves from the cauliflower and slice the bottom of stem so the head sits flat. From the center, make 1/2″ (1+ cm) slices vertically to make 4 steaks (they will be held together by the stem). Depending on the size of your cauliflower, you may get only 2-3 steaks, so repeat with second cauliflower. Save the remaining florets for another meal.
  4. Cooking the steaks: Heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) of olive oil over high heat in a cast iron or heavy-bottom skillet with lid. When the oil is shimmering, working in batches, add 2-3 steaks and sear until deep brown, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and repeat with the remaining steaks. Stack all the cauliflower steaks in 2-3 layers in the skillet, add 2 tablespoons of water and cover. Remove from heat and let steam about 15 minutes or until soft. When done, put the steaks on a plate and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. (Reuse the skillet for the polenta–step 6.)
  5. Make the zucchini noodles: While the cauliflower is steaming, bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Grate/slice the zucchini into long strips, using the largest holes on a box grater or the baton blade of the mandoline. Blanch the zucchini in boiling water for 30 seconds and drain in a colander. Line a baking sheet with 2-3 layers of kitchen or paper towels. When the zucchini is cool enough to handle, transfer to the baking sheet and gently spread in an even layer. Cover with another 2-3 layers of towels.
  6. Crisp the polenta: Wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil on high heat until shimmering. Slice the chilled polenta into 8 wedges. Fry until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes per side. Rest on paper towels to drain before serving.
  7. Toss noodles and serve: The tomato sauce should be mostly reduced by now. Remove from heat. Transfer the zucchini noodles to the tomato sauce and gently toss to coat. To serve, place a cauliflower steak or two on each plate, add a serving of zucchini, and garnish with fresh herbs. Add the polenta last to retain its crispiness.

zucchini noodles in tomato sauce served with cauliflower steaks and crispy polenta


3 Comments on “Recipe: zucchini noodles, cauliflower steaks and crispy polenta (vegetarian)”

  1. shelly page
    8 September 2012 at 02:00 #

    This looks delish! Can’t wait to try it.

    • spotcleanfood
      8 September 2012 at 07:04 #

      Thanks, pretty lady! Do you grow your own zucc?

  2. Sucheta + Polka
    14 September 2012 at 14:21 #

    Zucchini noodles – never thought of that! looks yummy and the presentation is lovely as well. Looking forward to trying the recipe. Thanks for sharing :)

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