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!
Table of contents:
1. Why this recipe works
2. Ingredient notes
3. Step-by-step instructions
4. Tips for making this recipe
5. Frequently Asked Questions
6. Recipe card with notes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
There are a handful of ways to get this salad on the table even faster:
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).
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.
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
This easy Zucchini Salad with Cheater’s Chili Oil transforms fresh summer ingredients into an elevated side dish. Featuring raw zucchini dressed with a simple homemade chili oil and basil-mint gremolata, the crunchy and satisfying bites are guaranteed to delight your taste buds!
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 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.
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.