Claudia Rinaldi was adamant but unconvincing when she assured me it’s possible to make a satisfying, still-rich and utterly comforting pasta carbonara in which the hallmark fatty guanciale is replaced by zucchini. Because... Seriously?

Still, I’ll admit to being intrigued. When properly cooked, zucchini can straddle a wonderful line between meaty and rich, yet still light and fresh. A pasta carbonara—too often a larded, hefty dish—able to walk that same line was alluring.

Rinaldi—a cookbook author and blogger who lives on the outskirts of Rome—and I had started the day at her neighborhood pasta shop, the sort of place where if they don’t have the fresh noodle you want, they’ll make it for you on the spot.

Back at her apartment, Rinaldi—who learned to cook from her Sicilian grandmother and was the sort of child who asked for anchovies for her 8th birthday—assured me that while it may sound like misguided vegetarianism, zucchini carbonara is a real dish with deep roots in Italy’s tradition of cucina povera, or making do (and dinner) with whatever is available.

Crisped guanciale—cured pork cheeks—pecorino Romano cheese, eggs and ample black pepper are the classic combination that, when tossed with pasta and a bit of its starchy cooking water, transforms into carbonara.

When meat wasn’t an option, people substituted whatever was abundant and inexpensive, in this case zucchini. The trick, Rinaldi explained, is getting a rich sear on the zucchini before adding any other ingredients. This is what produces the savory richness we want in the finished dish.

Rinaldi’s cooking was simple and speedy. She browned her zucchini—which she’d cut into thin rounds—in garlic-infused olive oil. While unlikely to be mistaken for pork, that combination of searing zucchini, sizzling oil and garlic certainly evoked the meaty aromas we were hoping for.

Combined with egg, cheese, pepper and pasta, the zucchini indeed delivered as promised. Browned but not mushy, the vegetable had a toothsome quality that kept it satisfying. Another lesson that making do never has to disappoint.