This week’s recipe is the last meal I made in Rome before we left for three weeks in Sicily. In the days before that, we’d been “eating down”. I’m not sure where I picked up this expression, the longer version of which is “eating down the fridge” – that is, eating anything that might go off before a holiday. But pick it up I did, and now it pops up like a cold sore every time I look at the fridge as a holiday approaches. Anyway, things were going well: there was just milk, cherry yoghurt, parmesan that was already quite hard, lettuce for the friend coming to feed the tortoise, and a large courgette left.
While a well-stocked fridge is full of possibilities, it also presents you with choices and decisions. A near-empty one, on the other hand, takes responsibility and tells you what to do. Fry the courgette, the fridge said. How? The answer to this is in my still unpublished pamphlet, How to Turn any Vegetable into a Pasta Sauce, a work of six sections: boiling (which is usually followed by dragging), roasting, pounding, dicing, frying and the steamy braise. Steamy braise is the best section, because it is a great approach: fry the vegetable first in oil (not to brown it, but to seal the surface), then add just enough water and salt that the vegetable bubbles and steams away in its own juices. The liquid reduces while the courgette softens and collapses enough to become a sauce.
A steamy braise works for most vegetables, and particularly for artichokes, peas (frozen or fresh), pumpkin and courgettes. Some say broccoli, too, but I think that is best cooked according to section one – that is, boiled and dragged, or strascinati, a very Roman way, which I have written about previously. Allowing courgettes to cook slowly, first by frying, then by simmering them in their own juices, brings out their sweetness, which you need to season well with salt and grated cheese. Their texture is mushy, so if you are not a fan of that, turn to section five: frying.
Whenever I make pasta with courgettes now, I am reminded of an essay in Rebecca May Johnson’s wonderful new book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, about making something a thousand times, and how repetition turns recipes into conversations we have with ourselves, shaping both us and the recipe. Repetition teaches, maybe reassures, possibly bores – and is no guarantee against the unexpected. Which is hardly surprising, given all the knives, fire and appetites. I recommend the book for its insightful, radical, beautiful essays – and for all the kitchen dancing.
mezze maniche, casarecce
Serve this pasta with plenty of grated parmesan or pecorino. Alternatively, and for added texture, fresh white breadcrumbs tossed with olive oil and salt, then toasted in a pan until golden and crisp. And, for pudding, that lingering cherry yoghurt we need to eat down.
Pasta with courgettes
Prep 15 min
Cook 20 min
3 medium courgettes
2 garlic cloves
6 tbsp olive oil
1 handful basil leaves
400-500g pasta – fusilli, spaghetti, mezze maniche or casarecce
Grated parmesan or pecorino, to serve (or a handful of breadcrumbs, tossed with olive oil and salt, and toasted in a pan until golden)
Top and tail the courgettes, then cut into 1cm-thick coins. Crush the garlic cloves with the side of the knife, so they split, but remain intact, and the skins come away.
Put the oil, garlic, courgettes and a pinch of salt in a frying pan set over a low-medium heat and fry the courgettes gently, turning them after a few minutes. Gently fry on the other side for a few minutes, then add a few tablespoons of warm water to the pan, and leave to bubble away. Add more water, and repeat until the courgettes are very tender and collapsing with just a little liquid left in the pan – this will take about 20 minutes. While the courgettes are cooking, boil the pasta according to the packet instructions, until al dente, then drain.
Remove and discard the garlic, rip in the basil leaves and a few chilli flakes, if you wish, then add the drained pasta to the pan and mix (or mix the courgettes with the pasta in a large bowl). Serve, passing round parmesan, pecorino or toasted breadcrumbs.
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