Zucchine alla Scapece

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.

Jesse calls them ‘the joke vegetable’. In the part of the world where he is from (a rural village of south-west Illinois) summers are scorching and humid just like where I am from. There, courgettes (or shall I rather say zucchini) grow at an unmanageable rate, seemingly overnight, and keep coming and coming despite the quick turnover, and the inventiveness in the kitchen. Once picked, his whole family would grate them at industrial rates. Some are then made available for immediate consumption in the form of zucchini bread; others are packed in freezer bags and stored for the rest of the year, usually destined for more zucchini bread.

My grandparents had a few courgette plants in their garden, too, but not so many that we couldn’t cope with the eating. The issue was rather that they would let them grow too big, large and watery, with seeds as big as watermelon pits. It might have been because they forgot about them, or perhaps they thought that the larger they would get the better – more to eat, right? When in fact they were ten times better when small and crisp. Sure, it was free, genuine food and we learnt to use it up and make it taste good, but with courgettes that size there wasn’t much we could do. We did grill them, but they required quite some time in the sink to drain the excess of liquid. We sometimes stir fried them in oil and garlic, then tossed them with pasta, but the high water content would cause them to stew in their own juices rather than becoming crisp and flavoursome. What we certainly never did was frying them. No, the frying was absolutely out of the question. Which is exactly why, looking back, I know I missed out big time on one of the most delicious foods ever invented.

Fried courgettes might have been a rarity on our table, but as soon as I tasted them, they immediately became my favourite way to eat this otherwise pretty insignificant vegetable. Exposed to this delight later in life while travelling to Campania (the land of fried vegetables) for work, I was presented with a starter of zucchine alla scapece. I remember being truly struck by their sharp flavour and intense, almost nose-unclogging smell – I had never thought courgettes could taste so much of something. They were sour and sweet, garlicky and fresh, tender and chewy, with their oily juices dancing on the plate and been mopped away by a piece of sturdy bread. They were so instantly addictive I had to order a second round, happy to skip the pasta course in their favour. It soon realised that garlic, vinegar and mint (rather than courgettes per se) were the flavours I was tasting, and everything made more sense. I was intrigued. No, actually, I was really hooked.

Zucchine alla scapece – this traditional Neapolitan dish of fried courgettes marinated in a vinegar solution, where fat slices of garlic and roughly torn mint leaves were added – remains my favourite way to eat courgettes to date. When in Campania, I always order it when I see it on a restaurant menu, and I have even tried to reproduce it in my tiny apartment. It admittedly took me a little while to gather the guts to do it, but the first good occasion presented itself on an unusually chilly day in June, in the form of many small, crisp, lightly ridged Roman courgettes. Since then, though, frying courgettes have become some sort of celebratory ritual in our home. It is something we save for the odd rainy summer day when the breeze is fresh and flows freely, sweeping away the dreaded cooking odors.

Zucchine alla Scapece

This quintessential summer dish is usually served cold, as an appetizer or as part of a starter spread. Plan ahead by preparing it the day before and letting it cool in the fridge overnight – it will taste much better this way. This dish will keep well for about four days in the fridge.

500g small, young courgettes
1 L sunflower oil, for frying
60 ml (1/4 cup) white wine vinegar
60 ml (1/4 cup) water
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced finely
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A small handful of fresh mint leaves

Rinse and pat dry the courgettes. Slice them thinly, then arrange them on a kitchen towel and cover with another clean one. Let them rest for at least an hour to drain their excess liquid. Meanwhile, heat the vinegar with the water and the sliced garlic in a small saucepan. Allow to reduce to about half its volume, then remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

Heat the oil in a wide, high-edge skillet. Test its temperature by inserting the handle of a wooden spoon: when small but fast bubbles form all around it, the oil is ready. Fry the courgette slices in batches, without crowding them. Fry them on both sides until deep golden and a bit wrinkly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a large plate covered with kitchen. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Repeat until you have fried them all.

Remove the kitchen paper from underneath the courgettes, then pour over the warm vinegar and garlic marinade. When completely cool, scatter some roughly torn mint leaves over the courgettes, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest in the fridge for about three hours, or overnight. Serve as a starter or as a side dish with some fresh cheese – I am thinking fiordilatte or ricotta – and plenty of good crusty bread.

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