Never known a courgette glut like it. Our raised beds are Zucchini Centrale this summer. One upside of a current disinclination to travel? There have been no transitions into the dreaded marrow. What the hell can you do with those? Answers in crayon on a hessian sack, please.
Soup has been one way to depopulate the veg rack. The Ethicurean Cookbook’s Roasted Courgette and Cobnut Soup is an old favourite even if the hazelnut’s folksy Kentish cousin is still a month or two away from ripening. As they will in that Mendip restaurant’s walled garden, which I so love. As I write I’m happy to substitute pistachios to sprinkle over the labneh I’ve been straining for 36 hours (soup recipe below).
Serendipity rules as the courgettes pile up. Italy’s a good way to go. Marcella Hazan, Giorgio Locatelli, the late Antonio Carluccio and our English Italophiles Jacob Kenedy, Alastair Little, Rachel Roddy, all offer ways of making the green watery cylinders they call zucchini up their game.
The heftier examples really require baking, so I profitably consult the unsung Queen of La Cucina, Anna del Conte (Milan-born, resident in England since 1949, now 96).
From her Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of (1989) I pick Zucchini Ripiene alla Mantovano, which stuffs them with ricotta and amaretti in the method particular to Mantua (recipe below). It makes use of my store cupboard stash of amaretti biscuits, close to their use-by-date. They add a beguiling almondiness, as they do to another slightly sweet speciality of that Lombard city, pumpkin tortellini.
All this sustainable kitchen prep of my glut, though, lacks a little glamour. What the Romans call Il Fascino. The glory of growing your own courgettes is the access to their trumpet-like yellow flowers. All over Italy in season you can buy bags of them at markets. Not so in Britain. I once spotted an overpriced wilting trio of them at a farmer’s market in Marylebone. It reminded me of northern traders flogging a small bag of wild garlic for a couple of quid when nearby woods reeked of the forageable stuff. Zucchini flowers – you really have to grow your own.
What to do with them? Not too many choices. Best to take the advice of a forgotten food writer, whose two most beautiful tomes – hand written, self illustrated, product of hands-on research – remain a fixture on the shelf of my all-time favourite cookbooks.
Leslie Forbes died in 2016 at the age of 63. By then the Canadian, originally an artist (she illustrated Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence), was most celebrated for the best-seller Bombay Ice and other literary thrillers. I couldn’t get on with them; my heart remained with A Table in Tuscany (1985) and A Table in Provence (1987). Seek them out second hand on Abe Books or the like.
Both have recipes for courgette flowers… or more evocatively Fiori di Zucca or Fleurs des Courgettes. I’m not one for deep-frying the stuffed flowers, so I’ll pass on the zucchini fritters San Gimignano style, ‘au naturel’ or ham-stuffed, from the Tuscan book; instead try this Provencal treatment, which Leslie sourced from the Gleize family of Chateau Arnoux. I I substitute water for the chicken stock, use canned San Marzano tomatoes and am still waiting on my second batch of chervil to come through, so omitted.
FLEURS DE COURGETTES FARCIE SAUCE POMME D’AMOUR
400g can San Marzano tomatoes
grated zest one lemon (no white pith)
3-4 basil leaves, finely chopped
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp chervil, finely chopped
pinch of powered corlander
1 garlic clove, peeled & crushed
100 ml olive oil
salt and pepper
3 medium courgettes, finely chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
6 fresh basil leaves, in thin strips
6 fresh mint leaves, chopped
handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 small garlic cloves, peeled & finely chopped
salt and pepper
generous handful fine stale breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
18 large courgette flowers (picked just before you need to use them if possible)
Prepare sauce at least 12 hours before: crush tomatoes with a fork, and beat in the lemon zest, herbs, coriander, garlic & olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate.
To make the stuffing, cook the courgettes in 2 tbsp of olive oil. When softened, remove from heat and mix with basil, mint, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Allow to cool and add the breadcrumbs and beaten egg.
Remove pistils from flowers, then put a spoonful of the stuffing into each flower, tuck in the ends & lay the flowers side by side in an oven proof dish. Pour over the water remaining olive oil, cover with foil & bake for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 350°F/180°C/gas 4. To serve, spoon a little tomato coulis onto each plate and place three flowers on top.
ZUCCHINI RIPIENE CON RICOTTA E AMARETTI
4 medium courgettes, each about 15cm
30g unsalted butter
1 shallot, very finely chopped
2tsp olive oil
2tsp fresh thyme
3 dry amaretti, finely crumbled
150 g fresh ricotta, drained
1 free range egg
50g grated parmesan
pinch grated nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
Wash the courgettes throughly and half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the flesh, without puncturing the skin: the aim is to get hollow, boat-shaped courgette halves. Salt them lightly and turn them upside down on a wooden board: the salt will draw out unwanted moisture and the courgette will be all the tastier for that. After half an hour, pat them dry. Keep the courgette pulp separate.
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.
Melt half the butter with half the oil, add the shallot, salt it to stop it browning and fry it gently, with the lid on. When it is soft, raise the heat, add the chopped thyme and the courgette flesh, diced. Stir and then cook until fairly dry. Mix together the ricotta, the parmesan (minus one tablespoon), the egg, amaretti and the cooked courgette pulp. Add nutmeg and black pepper.
Smear the bottom of an oven dish, preferably metal, with the remaining oil and tuck in a single layer of courgette shells. Stuff each shell with the filling, sprinkle with dried breadcrumbs, mixed with parmesan, and dot with the remaining butter and drizzle with the rest of the olive oil.
Bake until a light golden crust has formed, checking after the first 40 minutes. Eat warm or at room temperature.
MAKING A SUMMERY POTAGE FROM A WALLED GARDEN
Like the nature writer Richard Mabey, folk singer/nightingale devotee Sam Lee, Robert ‘Lost Words’ Macfarlane, there are some national treasures that speak for the real England and its glories. A world away from the nasty jingoism festering and now erupting in the wake of Brexit.
Whenever I get angry about this rampant intolerance and the way our Cabinet of Fools have handled the pandemic I return to the ultimate therapy – growing my own and cooking.
I am not alone in making that essential plot to table connection. A whole new generation of professional chef/growers is in the vanguard of championing our food heritage. In my own North these include Sam Buckley of Where The Light Gets In, Joseph Otway of Higher Ground/Cinderwood Market Garden and Alisdair Brooke-Taylor of the Moorcock at Norland.
And down in the Mendip Hills outside Bristol The Victorian Barley Wood Walled Garden provides inspirational, seasonal produce for the on-site Ethicurean, winner of Best Ethical Restaurant in the 2011 Observer Food Monthly Awards. We loved eating there, with accompanying tumblers of their home-made vermouth. Like Simon Baker, chef patron of the stalwart Gimbals Restaurant (like the Moorcock in my home territory of the Calder Valley), I am a huge fan of their The Ethicurean Cookbook (Ebury Press, £25). Highly recommended.
The Ethicurean stuff their courgette flowers with ewe’s curd and cobnuts, accompanying them with a wild fennel sorbet. They make the most of our native cobnuts, nearly extinct 30 years ago but making a comeback in likeminded restaurants. They feature in my final recipe, taken from The Ethicurean Cookbook. In season you can buy cobnuts mail order from Kent. My obliging Calderdale greengrocer Valley Veg have a supply on request.
ROASTED COURGETTE AND COBNUT SOUP WITH LABNEH AND GINGER TURMERIC AND MINT DRESSING
1kg small firm courgettes, sliced into 2cm pieces
500g onions finely sliced
250g carrots finely sliced
250g celery finely sliced
1tsp salt plus more for final seasoning
40g fresh cobnuts, chopped, thenlightly toasted
For the labneh:
500g Greek yoghurt
1tbsp chopped marjoram
1tbsp chopped oregano
For the dressing:
85ml rapeseed oil
50ml cider vinegar
1tsp English mustard
½tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground turmeric
1tsp chopped mint
Make the labneh a day in advance. Line a sieve with muslin and put the yoghurt in it, stirring in salt. Wrap into a bundle over a deep bowl to drain overnight. Next day discard the liquid. To make the dressing blend all the ingredients together.
Heat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6. Toss the courgettes with a little rapeseed oil, then spread on a roasting tin. Roast in oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a film of rapeseed oil in a large saucepan and add onions carrots and celery; sweat for 10-15 minutes until tender. Stir so the veg doesn’t colour. Add roasted courgettes and sweat for 5 minutes longer. Add water to barely cover and bring to a simmer. Add salt and after five minutes blitz in a blender (in batches if necessary). If too thick for you, pas through a fine sieve to create a more velvety mouthfeel. Now season to taste, reheat gently and serve in bowls topped with a tablespoon of labneh, a scattering of chopped cobnuts and a drizzle of mustard dressing.