This Zucchini Salad with Cheater’s Chili Oil breathes new life into zucchini. Zucchini is finely sliced and dressed in an easy chili oil, basil-mint gremolata, toasted pistachios, and vegan feta.
The depth of flavor is impressively rich while the crunch factor delights your senses and taste buds!
This recipe will quickly become a new staple summer dish not only because of its unique, gourmet flavor profile but also because there’s very little cooking involved. Unlike recipes that grate and cook zucchini, like my Zucchini Fritters, there’s no advance prep needed. Just slice it up and toss it with the rest of the ingredients!
Why this recipe works
A fresh spin on zucchini
Once summer arrives, so do the zucchini bread and “zoodle” pasta recipes. There’s no shortage of zucchini recipes, but I think it’s time zucchini got a new, creative makeover.
And with lots of fresh flavors and textures, this salad makes zucchini feel fun and fancy!
First, the zucchini is sliced into bite-sized pieces, then it’s tossed in my cheater’s chili oil, a fragrant basil-mint-pistachio topping, and vegan feta. It’s gourmet and feels sophisticated, but is so easy to make.
Fresh and crunchy, not soggy
This isn’t your average zucchini ribbon salad, where the zucchini looks beautiful but turns into a mushy mess as soon as the dressing is poured on top.
Instead, the zucchini is cut into half-inch pieces (or batons) for this salad. This method keeps the squash crunchy and helps it feel more substantial.
You can even make the salad a few hours ahead of time! It’ll still have a nice bite, even with the dressing on top.
Quick and easy!
One of the best features of this salad is that it has an appearance that would suggest you’ve been working on it all day. The carefully cut zucchini, custom gremolata, and homemade chili oil… there’s no way you could have whipped this up in under 30 minutes, right? Wrong!
This zucchini salad takes 30 minutes or less from start to finish. There’s also very little cooking involved, which makes it one of the best side dishes for weeknight dinners or meal prep during summer.
The star of the show! For the best of the best, pick up fresh zucchini from your local farmer’s market between May and September. There, they’ll likely have the freshest and most flavorful zucchini, as well as different varieties to choose from.
If you have an abundance of summer squash, feel free to use a few different varieties. I prefer it with only zucchini because, compared to other varieties, it has a slightly better texture when served raw.
Olive oil + chili flakes
That’s all you need for my cheater’s chili oil! This recipe calls for your everyday red pepper flakes gently heated in olive oil. The result? A fairly spicy oil that somewhat tenderizes the zucchini and adds a rich flavor.
Since capsaicin (the active compound that makes chili flakes and peppers spicy) is fat-soluble, toasting the chili flakes in oil brings out their hidden flavors which makes them taste deeper and richer. And in turn, the oil takes on a nutty, spicy flavor. Mutual symbiosis!
The type and amount of chili flakes you choose to use will determine how spicy the chili oil is:
Mild to medium heat: Use Aleppo pepper or gochugaru (1 tablespoon).
Medium to spicy heat: Use crushed red chili flakes (1 tablespoon, or 1 to 2 teaspoons for less heat). Or, 2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper (my preference for the best flavor).
PS: Authentic chili oil is a staple in Chinese and Asian cuisine. In other words, it’s very different from my cheater’s version!
It’s typically made from an intricate blend of aromatics, dry and whole spices, Szechuan chili flakes, and neutral-flavored oil. Check out this authentic chili oil recipe from The Woks of Life if you want to learn more about the real thing.
Basil + Mint
These delicate fresh herbs pair beautifully with zucchini. Their light and refreshing flavors also balance the heat from the chili oil.
You can use both or one or the other – the salad will still be good. For more fresh herbs you can use in this salad, head to the Tips section.
I love how pistachios pair especially well with the fresh mint, but almonds are also great here and add a more distinctive crunchy texture.
To save time, buy pre-roasted nuts. Freshly toasted nuts will taste best and have more crunch, but both options work.
Nut-free substitute: Use roasted/toasted pepitas instead.
A zucchini salad feels incomplete with feta! It adds a nice creamy element plus a slightly salty tang.
I especially love Violife and Trader Joe’s brand vegan feta cheese. Both are widely available in the U.S. and the latter is quite reasonably priced.
Can’t find vegan feta? You can either (a) make my homemade Tofu Feta (you’ll need to make it in advance, as it marinates in the fridge for 1 to 2 days) or (b) replace the feta with one medium or large avocado, torn into chunks with your hands or diced.
Start by roasting the nuts if you haven’t done so already or aren’t using pre-roasted nuts. You can do this on a sheet pan in the oven or in a dry frying pan.
Next, make the chili oil. Heat the chili flakes and olive oil in a small saucepan over low heat until it gently simmers. Take it off the heat after a few minutes and pour the oil into a bowl or jar.
Trim and slice the zucchini in any way you prefer:
Option 1: ½-inch pieces. Slice the zucchini in half, lengthwise. Then slice both halves in half, lengthwise, so you have four quarters. From there, slice the zucchini into ½-inch (~1 cm) pieces (shown below).
Option 2: skinny batons. Cut the zucchini crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Slice each piece in half, lengthwise, then into ¼-inch-thick slabs (.5 cm thick). Now slice those slabs into ¼-inch-thick batons.
Make the herby pistachio topping next. Finely slice the basil and mint into ribbons (watch this video to learn how to chiffonade herbs).
Chop the pistachios. In a bowl, combine the chopped herbs, chopped pistachios, lemon zest, flaky salt, and pepper in a bowl.
To assemble, drizzle some of the chili oil over the sliced zucchini. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, then gently toss to combine. Next, add the herby pistachio topping and vegan feta on top. Toss once more. Taste, adding more salt or pepper to taste, more chili oil for richness, or lemon for tang. Enjoy!
Tips for making this recipe
Make this during zucchini season.
Unlike some cooked zucchini dishes that might taste fine outside of peak zucchini season, a raw zucchini dish should only be made during zucchini season (summer to early fall). Otherwise, the zucchini will taste bland and be quite boring! And since the zucchini is raw, it’s important to use the best-quality zucchini you have access to. If you have a farmer’s market, try purchasing your zucchini there.
Don’t let the chili oil burn
Keep an eye on your chili oil as it simmers on the stove. If it’s cooked at too high of a temperature and simmered too vigorously, the chili flakes will burn.
The chili oil should be cooked at the gentlest simmer possible. Use the smallest burner on your stove and don’t heat it over anything higher than low heat. You want tiny, slow, barely-there bubbles.
If you have an electric stove, you’ll want to pay very close attention and take it off the heat sooner as needed.
Slice the zucchini in one of two ways
The cut you choose depends on the texture you like. If you’re not used to eating zucchini raw or prefer something that’s got less bite and crunch, slice the zucchini into skinny batons. When you’re short on time or you want your salad to have a nice crunch, choose the bite-sized pieces. It’s up to you!
My only recommendation is to avoid zucchini ribbons or very thin slices. That’s when you run the risk of assembling a soggy salad.
Save time by multitasking
There are a handful of ways to get this salad on the table even faster:
- Start slicing the zucchini when the chili oil starts simmering. The simmer is very gentle so the oil doesn’t need to be babysat (just ensure it stays at a gentle simmer).
- Roast the nuts in advance. They keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for about one week, maybe two weeks.
- Make the chili oil several weeks in advance. It stores well in the fridge. The oil will solidify in the fridge, so let the jar of chili oil sit at room temperature or put the jar in a bowl of warm water to quickly come back to its liquid state.
Save the leftover chili oil!
Leftover chili oil is one of the best condiments to have in your fridge. Put it to use by drizzling it over tofu scramble, use it in vinaigrettes, drizzle it over stir fry, pair it with other salads, spoon it over roasted vegetables or baked tofu, use it to jazz up your favorite noodle dish, use it as a dumpling dipping sauce, and more.
If the oil solidifies over time, let it sit at room temp for a few minutes (or place the jar in a bowl of hot water to speed things up).
Customize it to your taste
- The amount of chili flakes in the chili oil makes this a pretty spicy salad. Modify the heat level using a milder chili flake or a smaller amount of red pepper flakes.
- Make the gremolata with your favorite fresh herbs or what you already have on hand.
- For a different flavor profile, make the gremolata with parsley and dill (don’t use more than ¼ to ½ cup dill), or mint and cilantro. Or toss in a few tablespoons of leftover chives if you have them on hand.
- Switch up the nuts or use a nut-seed combo. Use a mixture of pistachios and almonds, all almonds, or even a few different varieties of seeds and nuts, like almonds, pine nuts, and pepitas.
- Add protein for bulk, like baked tofu or crispy roasted chickpeas. You can use the leftover chili oil to pan fry some canned chickpeas, turning them from basic to extra delicious!
- Another way to bulk up the salad is to toss it with cooked pasta (medium or short pasta works best) or grains, like farro or pearl couscous. For something truly indulgent, brown up some crumbled vegan sausage and toss it in with the salad and pasta.
- This salad welcomes a medley of vegetables, not just zucchini. Fold in halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, diced red bell pepper, microgreens, and your other seasonal favorites.
- To serve this as an appetizer or light meal, schmear some of my Cashew Ricotta onto slices of good crusty bread, then top it with this salad.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can! But it’s crucial that it’s in-season and good-quality. Otherwise, it won’t be exciting or taste great. If raw zucchini doesn’t appeal to you, can always lightly sauté the zucchini first.
The chili oil is made with 1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes, which makes it quite spicy. It may not set your mouth on fire but there is a noticeable kick. For a milder heat, use my variation suggestions in the Notes on the recipe card.
Yes! That’s part of the beauty of this salad. You can make it a few hours ahead of time and let it sit at room temperature, and it will still be tasty. It’s best enjoyed the day it’s made but leftovers keep pretty well in the fridge for 2 to 3 days.
Instead of store-bought vegan feta, try making the salad with my homemade Tofu Feta (you’ll need to make it in advance, as it marinates in the fridge for 1 to 2 days). You can also replace the feta entirely with one medium or large avocado, torn into chunks or diced.
Absolutely. Use pepitas or a mixture of pepitas and sunflower seeds as a substitute for the pistachios.
This hearty, yet light zucchini salad is best served as a side dish paired with summer salads and side dishes. Bring it to a picnic or an al fresco dining spread and enjoy it with more refreshing recipes, like my Grilled Corn Salad, Vegan Broccoli Salad, Charred Green Beans, and Vegan Pasta Salad.
If you give this Vegan Zucchini Salad recipe a try, be sure to tag me on Instagram with your recreations and please comment with your feedback below
- 1/4 cup (56g) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (or other chili flakes, see Note 1 for heat levels)
- 4 fairly firm medium-sized zucchini or a mix of zucchini and summer squash (about 24 ounces or 700g)
- 1 cup (16g) fresh basil leaves
- 1/2 cup (8g) fresh mint leaves (can sub with more basil, or dill or flat-leaf parsley)
- 1/2 cup (70g) roasted shelled pistachios (or almonds) (see Note 2)
- 1 large lemon, zested
- Flaky sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 ½ to 2 ounces (40 to 60g) vegan feta, crumbled (see Note 3)
- If your nuts aren’t pre-roasted, start by toasting those first. Preheat your oven to 350ºF/175ºC and spread the nuts out on a sheet pan. Roast pistachios for 8 to 10 minutes, or almonds for 10 to 15 minutes. Or, you can toast them in a frying pan for 3 to 5 minutes, tossing frequently (though they toast less evenly this way).
- Make the chili oil. Add the chili flakes and olive oil to a small saucepan. Turn the heat to low. Once it’s at the most gentle simmer (tiny slow, barely-there bubbles), simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into a bowl or jar to stop cooking.Tip: If you have an electric stove, pay close attention because it may burn if you don't pay attention to it.
- Trim the ends and tops of the zucchini. Slice the zucchini using one of these methods (see Note 4). Transfer sliced/chopped zucchini to a large bowl.Option 1: For ½” pieces, slice the zucchini in half, lengthwise. Then slice both halves in half, lengthwise, so you have four quarters. If zucchini is fat, slice again so you have eighths. From there, slice the zucchini into ½” (~1 cm) pieces.Option 2: For skinny batons, cut the zucchini crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Slice each piece in half, lengthwise, then into ¼”-thick slabs (.5 cm thick). Now slice those slabs into ¼”-thick batons.
- Make the herby pistachio topping. Chop the pistachios. Stack the leaves of basil and roll them up like a cigar, then finely sliver the leaves (i.e., chiffonade). Do the same for the mint. For any small leaves, you can tear them with your hands.
- In a bowl, combine the basil, mint, chopped pistachios, lemon zest, and a few pinches of flaky salt and a generous amount of pepper. Mix together to combine. Slice the zested lemon in half and set aside for the next step.
- Assemble. Drizzle the zucchini with about 2 tablespoons of the chili oil. Squeeze on about ½ tablespoon lemon juice, and gently toss with a spatula. Add the herby pistachio topping and feta, and toss to combine. Taste, adding flaky salt or pepper to taste, or more chili oil for richness or lemon juice for tang.
- Store leftover chili oil in a jar in the fridge. It will last several weeks, though you may need to briefly leave it out at room temp to return the oil to its liquid state.
- This amount of red pepper flakes will make for a pretty spicy salad. If you want less heat, use 1 to 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes, or use a moderate chili flake like Aleppo pepper or gochugaru. My favorite is to use 2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper for a spicy salad with lots of nutty flavor.
- If you are allergic to nuts, you can use pepitas.
- The vegan feta adds a really nice creamy element plus a slightly salty tang. My favorite brands are Violife and Trader Joe’s brand, which is very reasonably priced. If you don’t have access to it, you can either (a) make my homemade Tofu Feta (you’ll need to make it in advance, as it marinates in the fridge for 1-2 days) or (b) replace the feta with one medium or large avocado, torn into chunks with your hands or diced.
- Option 2 (skinny batons) takes more time but might be ideal for you if you want smaller pieces of zucchini.