Before you start reading – this long premise hasn’t much to do with today’s recipe. Somehow, though, fried courgettes seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate five years or so of blogging – more than cake, even. I don’t say this lightheartedly, but you see, these happen far more rarely than dessert in our home and felt way more special.
I often ask myself what it is that keeps me here and keeps me going. What inspires me and draws me to this space, no matter the circumstances, five or so years (gosh!) after I typed the first words onto this blank canvas thinking I had something to say about food?
The answer never seems to be a masterfully photographed recipe planned meticulously, and cooked in a chunk of carefully chiseled yet never-so-spare time. It is not the giveaway I get sometimes asked to host, or more traffic, or a long list of comments (for much that I love having plenty of them). The more I see myself coming back to this space, despite the tiredness and the lack of time, the more I realise I am here for the stories. I am still here because some of the most meaningful moments in my life took place in the kitchen, and many of these stories are still left untold.
‘Is there someone interested in hearing them though?’ I ask myself as I type. For this is so crucial! I have never really liked talking to myself, and besides, it would be silly to think that I am here just to talk. No, what truly keeps me here is the mutual passions, the collision of ideas, the interchange of thoughts and personal experiences that are triggered by a common feeling or a shared memory. I am here to hear. I like nothing more than reading your posts, thoughts, comments, notes and emails. I am truly grateful to be part of this community that shares food stories so generously and genuinely. I want to earn my place in it the best I can.
So here I am today thanking you for being still here five years after it all started, holding a plateful of fried courgettes.
Grandma’s inquisitive, bewildered eyes were moving slowly between my brother – who appeared to be shielding himself behind a tall chair – and the pot warming up on the stove.
Our casual visit had turned into a lunch invite. It had been a while. Far from being the weekly recurrence it once was, lunch at grandma’s had become more of a special occasion reserved for New Years and Easter. We visited often, of course, spent some time and chatted for a good while, but we rarely stopped for a meal. We liked to tell ourselves the reason was that grandma was getting old, and that we didn’t want to give her any extra work in the kitchen. We knew in fact that her hearty food was something to be had in moderation. That day, though, she convinced our reluctant selves to stay.
For years June marked the end of the school year and the beginning of a time that seemed to stretch infinitely. Long, sleepy days were filled with lots of reading and plenty of boredom – I now struggle to remember what that felt like.
June also stated the beginning of the procession to Grandma’s house to pick vegetables from her garden. As soon as the humid heat of the Venitian countryside had settled in for the following three months, the garden started to go bonkers in all possible good ways. Tomatoes and courgettes were popping up by the minute, and required daily watering and harvesting. Green and runner beans could grow too big and stringy in a couple of hours, and the lettuce would turn tough and inedible if not cut promptly.
The cucumbers, as long as my arm and almost as large, were also pretty needy, and the aubergines and peppers would become all wrinkly under the burning midday sun in a matter of minutes. In a mad rush against time, I was there almost every day, right before sunset or as soon as the temperature of the soil had decreased to a simmer rather than a boil. Each time, I was getting enough produce to make a side dish or salad for our family’s evening meal, as well as for lunch the following day. Usually more. We certainly ate way beyond the five-a-day.
The decadence and totally over-the-top nature of this pasta are what makes it so very good. I don’t say this lightheartedly: usually, Italian recipes are very much about the ‘less is more’ approach, and this is what I love about them the most. Yet, sometimes, piling it all up high is just the right thing to do. In the case of this recipe, for example, it works.
The base is a Roman-inspired spring concoction called vignarola. This is a dish made of fresh peas, broad beans, artichokes, sometimes lettuce, sometimes fresh herbs, others bits of guanciale for extra flavour – all braised in oil and white wine until tender and utterly flavoursome. Vignarola is often served on bread, which has the double purpose of carrier and sponge for absorbing the delightful juices left at the end. You can sometimes find vignarola served alongside some fresh ricotta, but mostly, it can hold the stage on its own.
Monk’s beard – the strange, charming, totally addictive green that comes in nourished bunches with plenty of grits attached – is my current religion. The fact that its season is almost finished kills me but, at the same time, it makes me happy. It feels liberating, like I can finally move on onto the next obsessive compulsive seasonal eating craze. Two more weeks or so, and I’ll be free.
But for now, and for the past two months to date, monk’s beard has been a very frequent guest at our table. We’ve eaten it simply blanched and tossed in oil and lemon, then served alongside stupid easy and terribly satisfying slices of toasted bread with butter and anchovies. We’ve eaten it in multiple takes with spaghetti – either sauteed in a puddle of strongly-scented anchovy butter, then topped with a landslide of fried breadcrumbs; or with clams and lots of lemon zest. In both cases, the green strands of monk’s beard would entangle with the pasta creating an unbreakable marriage of complementary flavours and textures. What a great little thing it is.