The green-fingered among us who have vegetable patches and allotments to tend often bemoan the glut of courgettes at the height of summer. But oversupply should not detract from the virtues of this truly lovely and versatile vegetable, which is also simplicity itself to prepare for the table.
Known as zucchini to Italians, Americans and Australians, courgettes are – unsurprisingly given their slender shape and pale flesh – related to cucumbers (and also squash and melon).The flesh, on its own, can be a little bland admittedly. But with judicious seasoning, careful application of heat, good oil and/or combined with other seasonal bounty, courgettes are a true delight of summer.
When buying courgettes, look for small ones that feel heavy and firm, with unblemished glossy skin, which are more flavourful than larger specimens. And go for a mixture of colours if you can: yellow ones add wonderful colour to the plat. Regardless of their size or colour, courgettes don’t need peeling, as their skin is tender and tasty. Just wash, trim the ends and you’re ready to go.
If you’re in possession of small courgettes, try them raw. Shave lengthways into ribbons with a vegetable peeler or (very carefully) on a mandolin, then marinate in lemon juice to tenderise, along with a slosh of good extra virgin olive oil, crushed garlic, grated lemon zest and salt and pepper. Serve as a simple and cooling side salad or embellish with whatever else you have that’s in season. Juicy chopped tomatoes, a mix of sweet and bitter salad leaves, spoonfuls of creamy goat’s cheese or ricotta, and salty feta all work well. Add a handful or two of basil and mint leaves, and you have summer on a plate.
Whatever you do, don’t boil courgettes. They contain so much water already that boiling them will dilute their flavour and turn their flesh to mush. Rather, show them a slick of oil and direct heat, and they will repay you handsomely.
Some people like to salt courgettes before cooking; as with aubergines, this isn’t strictly necessary, but it draws out excess water, magnifies their flavour and makes them easier to crisp up in the pan. Simply slice the courgettes, toss with a little salt and leave to drain in a colander, then pat dry with kitchen paper. (Or do as the Italians do if you’re in a hot place, don’t salt them, just spread slices out in the sun for an hour or so to dry out a little).
The simplest way to cook courgettes is to roast them. Slice thinly, toss with olive oil into which you have grated some garlic, and season with salt and pepper (if you have already salted them, omit this step). Arrange in a single layer in a baking tray and roast in a medium oven until soft and sweet and, ideally, a little charred at the edges. You then have a tray of endless possibilities. Stuff into bread rolls with goat’s cheese or feta. Toss through pasta with extra virgin olive oil, chilli flakes and grated lemon zest and a handful of soft fresh herbs. Or stuff into a frittata.
Braised courgettes are also delicious – they collapse down into a rich and intensely savoury-sweet puree when cooked low and slow. Warm around 100m of olive oil in a pan and add 6 courgettes, sliced, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook gently until they begin to turn soft and golden, then add two or three chopped garlic cloves. Add a splash of water, partially cover and reduce the heat, then cook until very soft and creamy. Stir through pasta.
If you’re that way inclined, spiralise your courgettes and serve them instead of pasta or noodles. Use a spiraliser if you have one – courgettes’ soft flesh means they spiralise easily – or make ribbons with a vegetable peeler. Stir fry (they only take a couple of minutes, so add towards the end of cooking other ingredients) or briefly steam and serve with a pasta sauce.
Tomatoes are often in glut at the same time as courgettes, so fry them off together to make a ratatouille-style stew. Be sure to add some piquancy to the pot with some capers, a splash of good vinegar, or lemon zest or juice. Finish with a drizzle of really good extra virgin olive oil.
Courgettes make lovely soup, as they suck up other flavours like sponges. Finely dice, then stir into minestrone towards the end of cooking, so they retain a little bite. Or cook until tender with chopped onions and sweet corn, add stock and a splash of cream and blitz into a soup.A squeeze of lemon will magnify the flavours and add brightness.
Grated courgettes are also versatile, just remember to squeeze out excess water by wrapping them in a clean tea towel and giving them a good twist. Add to pancake or fritter batter, and don’t forget to season well. Or, incorporate grated courgettes into cake – soft sponges, carrot or even chocolate cake love courgettes.They add moistness and subtle flavour, not the taste of the vegetable patch. And best of all, you get one of your five a day and a sweet treat rolled into one.
Courgettes pair beautifully with: mint and basil, extra virgin olive oil, lemon (zest and juice), chilli flakes, soft cheese like goat and ricotta, salt cheese like feta and Parmesan, other summer vegetables like tomatoes and aubergines.
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