Despite having spent every summer on Martha’s Vineyard for as long as I can remember, I’ve never had a whole lobster with my parents. I bring this up because earlier this week on the island, we were invited over to a friend’s house for a classic lobster dinner and asked to bring a pasta salad, something my family is a lot more comfortable preparing. The whole occasion was a treat for me. I love masquerading as a traditional American family, and I especially love doing so when wearing a bib is involved.
So before I tell you more about this Mediterranean penne pasta salad that I whipped up as our contribution, I want to talk a little bit about the magical display of lobster preparation and consumption that I witnessed on Monday. The table setting, complete with lobster themed plates, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and other miscellaneous tchotchkes, was as close as I could come to the wholesome family lobster massacre of my dreams. But the cooking of the lobster, on the charcoal grill and basted in Cholula butter, was anything but ordinary.
Grilling the lobsters took a bit longer than the usual boil. But the slow high-heat cooking process allowed for all the excess liquid in the lobsters to evaporate, leaving our plates pleasantly puddle-free when it finally came time to crack them open. The meat also tasted faintly smoky, though I was too busy fisting a bowl of Cholula butter to waste time dissecting the flavor nuance.
The highlight of the meal though was watching my parents squirming in their seats, unsure of how to eat their dinner.
I could have easily ended up this confused had it not been for college. Every year on the Sunday of Spring Weekend my school’s whitest, wealthiest frat would flaunt their dues money for all to see in the form of lobster and rib eyes. Since this happened on one of the main quads, the rest of us mere pedestrians were forced to watch with envy as each brother collected their surf and turf and ate it with glee. Or tried to.
Freshman year my friend Swathi and I noticed that the majority of the frat boys would be too drunk at this point to want to bother with dissecting small scraps of meat from a mollusk. So we began a casual tag-teamed competition to see how many lobsters we could finagle for ourselves if we batted our eyelashes and asked nicely, or just took them while the unsuspecting brother was up searching for steak sauce. Under her tutelage I became a varsity level scavenger (one year we made it to 5!) and an equally proficient lobster cracker. And I was happy that I could at least pass down the latter skill to my parents this past week at the dinner table.
Since you never quite get enough meat from inside a lobster to satisfy your hunger (at least, if our collegiate gluttony is any indication), we were all happy to also have this penne pasta salad on the side. I got a little inspiration from this Ottolenghi recipe via Smitten Kitchen for a zucchini pasta salad and decided to put my own Mediterranean spin on it. Instead of giving the zucchini a full-on deep fry in the skillet (not for health reasons, I just hate wasting that much oil), I got the pan very hot and added just a thin layer of olive oil. The squash coins ended up still getting deeply brown and caramelized, perfect for soaking up the splash of sherry vinegar you add to the bowl. To bulk up the dish, I added some pan-fried chickpeas and chopped Kalamata olives, which went great with the parsley-basil mixture that coats every piece of penne (make sure to check out my favorite gluten-free pasta brands to see which one I used here).
Even if you’re not enjoying a traditional summer lobster dinner with the whole family, this penne pasta salad recipe makes for an excellent make-ahead side dish for whatever is coming off your grill (or the plates of the local fraternity brothers down the street).
Penne Pasta Salad with Zucchini, Chickpeas and Olives
- Olive oil
- 4 small zucchini or summer squash about 1 pound, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped pitted kalamata olives
- 2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
- Sea salt
- 1 cup coarsely chopped basil leaves
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves
- 1 large clove garlic
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 16 ounces gluten-free penne pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Meanwhile, set a large heavy skillet over high heat. Add a heaping tablespoon of olive oil - enough for a thin coat on the bottom of the pan. When smoking hot, add your first batch of zucchini (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. You don't want too much overlap). Cook without moving until the zucchini coins are beginning to brown, 1-2 minutes. Carefully flip/stir once. When the coins are golden brown and very soft, remove to a large mixing bowl with a slotted spatula, shaking excess oil back into the pan. Repeat with the additional zucchini, adding more oil as necessary. It should take you 3 to 4 batches depending on the size of your pan.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the chickpeas and olives. Saute until the chickpeas are beginning to brown and the olives are very fragrant, 2 minutes. Add to the bowl with the zucchini mixture and stir in the vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Meanwhile, combine the basil, parsley, garlic, lemon zest and juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small food processor. Puree until smooth and add to the mixing bowl. Alternatively, you can finely chop everything by hand.
Cook the penne according to package instructions. Drain, and add to the mixing bowl. Toss until the pasta is fully coated in the vegetable mixture. Taste for seasoning and add more olive oil as necessary so the noodles don't stick together. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature.
You can roast the zucchini in the oven if you don't want to pan-fry them. It will take longer, but will leave less oil on your counter tops!