If you read detective fiction you are probably familiar with the work of Donna Leon, an American who for the past 40 years has been living in Venice where she teaches English at the university.
She’s a hard worker and obviously well organised. Her university teaching job must keep her busy but she manages to find plenty of time for writing. Between 1992 and 2011 she was publishing a novel every year. They sell well and the critics acclaim them.
In 2011 she brought out a cookbook that includes original texts about food in Venice plus excerpts from the books in which her detective, Commissario Brunetti, eats at home or in bars and restaurants.
The cookbook also includes recipes for dishes made by Brunetti’s wife who, like Leon, teaches at Venice University three times a week. The recipes are by Donna’s best friend, Roberta Pianaro, who was born in Venice and has always lived there.
Pianaro’s recipes are unusual in that she has a way of sautéing I have never come across before. She sautés chopped onions and carrots by tossing them into a saucepan with oil or butter and then adding three or four tablespoons of water. She sautés until the water has evaporated, leaving behind the oil and butter.
Pianaro doesn’t say why she adds water, but it is obviously to stop the onions from burning. It sounds as if she is one of the many who habitually scorch the onions and the addition of some water is her way of solving the problem.
Leon’s cookbook, A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti, has some simple and interesting recipes, most of which were new to me. I particularly liked the pasta dishes and also those for courgettes, a vegetable the Italians handle better than any other nation. The French are very much in second place.
The courgette, called ‘calabacín’ in Spanish, is one of the great summer vegetables. We have two kinds on sale here, one being the Mallorcan variety that is thick at the stalk and then tapers off. They have light green skins and are called ‘calabacín blanco’ in Spanish.
The other variety is what the French and the British call courgette: it has a dark green skin, is straight and of a more or less even thickness. This variety comes mainly from the mainland, but some are also imported from Italy.
Courgettes are on sale throughout the year but their natural season is from May to December and they are at their best in July and August, so next month sees them completely in season.
Britons sometimes call the dark green courgettes Italian marrow and Americans use the Italian word zucchini, but also call them Italian squash.
No matter the name chosen, both nations are inclined to boil them, thereby producing a watery and unappetising mess. Those who have come across only boiled courgettes should not be put off this veggie, which is superb when sautéed in butter from scratch.
Courgettes should look and feel fresh. If they are at all soft to the touch, or feel hollow and dry, then they are well past their sell-by date and should be avoided.
Small courgettes are the ones to look for and the straighter the better because they will be easier to work with. If the courgettes are young and small, which also means thin, there is no need to peel them, and it also unnecessary to salt them before use.
But the older courgettes with ridged skins usually need half an hour’s salting and it’s a good idea to pare off some of the rough skin. But not all of it, because a great deal of the flavour is in the skin.
You can also enjoy young dark-skinned courgettes without cooking them as they are quite excellent when eaten raw. Cut the unpeeled courgettes into short strips, sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper and serve them with a dip.
You can use mayonnaise, allioli, a softened cream cheese or, easiest and cheapest of all, a bowl of yoghurt into which you have stirred garlic to taste and plenty of finely chopped mint.
When cooking courgettes, simplicity is the keynote to success: they don’t need elaborate methods or complicated sauces. One of the best ways of doing unpeeled young courgettes with dark skins is to cut off the ends and slice them into rounds. They can also be cut into four lengthways and diced.
French style Courgettes recipes
They can then be sautéed in butter for a short time and when al dente you can add seasoning such as lemon juice, finely chopped garlic, parsley or mint. They are so exquisite when done like this that you can serve them in the French style: on their own as a little starter for a summer lunch.
Another French way with these courgettes is to cook them with tomatoes. Slice half a kilo of unpeeled courgettes into rounds of 1 cm thick and sauté them gently in a single layer in a heavy frying pan with three heaped tablespoons of butter.
Add some finely chopped garlic after three minutes. Turn the slices and after another three minutes, stir in a sauce made separately with two large finely chopped peeled tomatoes.
When the courgettes and the sauce are well mixed, sprinkle with freshly milled black pepper to taste and serve immediately. This dish also works when served at room temperature, either on its own or with other cold appetisers.
Pasta & Courgette sauce
The Italians use young courgettes as a simple sauce for pasta. The easiest and cheapest comes from the poor south. Slice about 800 grs of unpeeled courgettes into very thin rounds and sauté gently in plenty of butter. When they are soft, mix into a bowl of spaghetti or any other kind of cooked pasta and sprinkle with freshly grated pecorino romana cheese.
Another simple and quickly made Italian pasta sauce is also one of the best. Unpeeled courgettes are sliced into four pieces lengthways, diced, and then sautéed in plenty of butter until they are just al dente.
Peeled plum tomatoes from a can are mashed with a fork until smooth and then lightly sautéed in butter for 15 minutes. The courgettes and the tomatoes are combined with the addition of a fresh herb of your choice and cooked for a further five minutes.
The fresh herbs that work well with this dish are basil, parsley, thyme, sage or fennel. I repeat: they must be fresh because the concentrated flavour of dried herbs overwhelms the delicate courgettes.
Pour this sauce over the pasta of your choice and serve with a generous sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.
The tomato sauce should be thick, so if it is at all watery reduce it before adding the courgettes.
You could add finely chopped onions and garlic to this sauce, but they are intrusive and would produce a sauce that is quite different and not as suitable for the courgettes.
You could also cook the courgettes and tomatoes in virgen extra olive oil, but the sauce wouldn’t have the same subtle flavours as those brought out by the butter.
Another delightful sauce for pasta combines little matchstick-sized strips of unpeeled courgettes with shredded lemon peel. It’s a colourful and tasty dish.
Add virgen extra olive oil to a suitable frying pan and sauté a large onion cut in half and thinly sliced. When the onion turns golden add two finely chopped cloves of garlic, 450 grs of courgettes cut into short matchstick pieces, shredded lemon rind to taste and a tablespoon of finely chopped parsley. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until the courgettes soften a little. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cook 400 grs of fusilli, rigatoni or other short pasta until al dente, drain and transfer to a serving dish or bowl and stir in the courgette mixture. Drizzle with virgen extra olive oil and serve with grated parmesan cheese.
Mallorcan style Courgettes recipes
Mallorcan cooks like to stuff courgettes but the filling must be simple or the fresh delicate taste of the courgette will be overwhelmed. Even so, you must not take the stuffing too seriously, using what’s available in the pantry or fridge. If you keep it simple you can’t go wrong.
When stuffing courgettes be sure to get straight ones because it makes the job so much easier. Slice the courgettes in two lengthways and sauté them gently, cut side down, in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they are a nice golden colour.
Take them out of the frying pan, and when cool scoop out the flesh with a small spoon. Mash the flesh to a pulp and mix it into the filling you are using.
The filling can be specially prepared fish or meat, or leftover cold cuts, rice, or vegetables such as onions, leeks, carrots or turnips, all finely diced and cooked.
Add garlic and fresh herbs of your choice and bake them in the oven with a light covering of freshly made tomato sauce or a thinnish bechamel sauce.
Courgettes have an affinity with tomatoes, green and red peppers, aubergines and onions, but care must be taken to avoid smothering their natural taste with herbs and spices. Go easy on the flavourings and give their delicate taste a chance to get through.
The above ingredients help to enhance the flavour of courgettes, which is why they are used in summer vegetable stews and dishes such as the French ratatouille.
The Mallorcan tumbet, a classic dish of aubergines, tomatoes, red peppers and sliced potatoes, can also legitimately contain courgettes. But some purists avoid them, saying that the courgette detracts from the tumbet’s authenticity.
The courgette is a small marrow that belongs to the vast family of Cucurbitaceae, a group so multifarious it includes melons, cucumbers, gherkins, pumpkins, gourds, squashes and marrows in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colours.
The courgettes’ origins are in South America, the warmer areas of what is now the United States and also Africa and didn’t come to Europe until about 400 years ago.
They were first cultivated in Italy, which gave the Italians a head start over other European nations. That’s one of the reasons courgettes are so popular there and why the Italians have so many wonderful recipes.
The courgette has travelled widely over the past 400 years. The Chinese stir-fry them until they are al dente and the Indians and the Arabs have aromatic dishes in which the subtle taste of the courgette isn’t smothered in spices.
The courgette should be part of the daily fare of those who want to lose a little weight. And who don’t these days? Courgettes contain only 17 calories per 100 grs, which isn’t surprising because they are 91 per cent water — which is why they become so water-logged if boiled.
If we are watching our weight, however, we must forget about the dishes mentioned above that are made with generous amounts of butter and virgen extra olive oil.
But that isn’t the end of the story, because we can make tasty dishes of courgettes, onions, tomatoes, red peppers and herbs — particularly fresh basil and thyme — and without using butter or oil and so benefit from their low calorie count.