Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s
I don’t envy people who don’t grow their own courgettes; they must think that this vegetable is actually like the examples we see for sale in the supermarkets. These large bore versions are all very well in their own way but they do seem to be a uniquely Irish and British thing. Our French and Italian cousins take a more infanticidal approach to courgettes or, if you’re south of the Alps or simply American, zucchini.
I think it’s the only way to go. It took me years to accept that an overgrown courgette belongs on the compost heap. There is a kind of thrift that bedevils kitchen gardeners in These Islands; we don’t like to let anything go to waste and, hence, inflict terrible things on ourselves. Courgettes, having a triffid-like habit, tend to get big when you’re not looking. Some, indeed, hide under the vast leaves and we only find them when a prize vegetable marrow starts to peep out.
I must confess to being something of a courgette agnostic. They are so easy to grow and, if you have a tunnel or a greenhouse or even a big cloche, you get a prolific crop from quite early in the Summer. For novice vegetable growers, courgettes are iconic as a symbol of the Bounty of Nature which they have just embraced. No wonder our relationship with this vegetable is complicated.
I have long struggled with the flavour of courgettes, its slightness; some might even say its absence. There is not much to a courgette apart from texture and, to some extent, colour. But, like tofu, they can act as a vehicle for other flavours and, sometimes in the process, showcase their own subtle taste.
I have cooked them with tomato and garlic and parsley; I have simmered them in butter; I have stuffed them with all manner of savoury things and gone on to enjoy those savoury things within the shells of their neutral containers. But not until I consulted the great (and now, sadly, late) Marcella Hazan did I find a recipe for courgettes to which I return again and again.
I was puzzled at first, convinced that Marcella eschewed courgettes because I couldn’t find them in the index to either of her two books that I keep in the kitchen. But of course, I was looking under zucchini. So thorough was the translation that the Italian was rendered into French for the English edition and there they were: lots of entries under “courgette”.
This is the one that really caught my eye, thanks to its simplicity, even austerity. But I knew that the divine Marcella would deliver the goods, however bare the recipe.
The Simplest and Best Courgette Recipe
What you need are (and you will see what I mean about the bareness):
Red wine vinegar
A few cloves of garlic
Marcella suggests soaking the courgettes in cold water for twenty minutes and while I suspect this is a bit excessive, I complied. The courgettes I proceeded to cook were the cleanest I have ever seen.
You cut off the ends and, if big enough, cut the remains in two. The idea now is to slice them into pieces about 6cm long and maybe 2cm broad. I do this by slicing lengthways in half, then quarter and so forth (thus the cross-section is triangular).
At this point, Marcella tells us to sprinkle liberally with salt and let the courgette pieces rest in a colander or a sieve for at least an hour. I managed three hours.
You need to bash a plump clove or two of garlic quite thoroughly and then place the peeled and pungent remains in a warm dish, ready to be buried under a pile of cooked courgettes when the time comes. This simple expedient will scent the dish superbly with garlic.
Then, while a generous glug of decent olive oil is heating in a heavy pan, you dredge the courgettes with flour. These are then fried, in batches, until browned, tender and a little crusty here and there.
When all of the courgettes are cooked, put them all back in the pan and sprinkle on perhaps a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. It will spit and fizzle for a minute. Then pile on top of the bashed raw garlic and leave to cool until good and warm but not scorching. This gives the garlic time to insinuate itself delightfully into every part of the dish.
In regard to quantities, and especially of red wine vinegar, you will have to be the judge of that yourself. Suffice it to say, too little is very much preferable to too much.
I realise that this dish sounds too simple to be delicious. I, too, was a sceptic. But it works and it works delightfully.
All hail, Marcella Hazan!