It’s been seven years, almost to the day, since I absconded to Italy. Rash, wayward and troubling it may have been, but my departure in March 2005 was, and remains, one of the better decisions of my life. After all, if I hadn’t come to Italy I might never have discovered (that amongst other things) I like, with a certain passion, courgettes. Which are zucchini to many of you, and indeed me after seven years. It wasn’t that I disliked zucchini before arriving in Italy! Dislike suggests strong feelings, judgment and an opinion, whereas my feelings about the tubular baby marrow Cucurbita pepo were – like football, most gadgets, inner soles and Celine Dion – those of indifference.
I’d spied vast, tumbling heaps of zucchini - most a familiar forest green either shaped like baby zeppelins or stout grenades, some bright yellow, others golden, many a seductive pale green – at markets on my chaotic travels round southern Italy and Sicily, most notably at the notorious and fascinating La Vuccaria market in Palermo. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Rome, settled comfortably in Testaccio and began going to the Market each day that I really took note, particularly the striking zucchine romanesche.
Zucchine romanesche are pale creamy-green mottled with white. They are slim, elegant things that often curve this way and that and are fluted like the Corinthian columns inside the Pantheon. If they are properly fresh they come crowned with a golden headdress, a fragile, rich-yellow flame-like flower. Their creamy white flesh is compact with tiny seeds, sweetly tender, seemingly the collision of a good cucumber, the sweet stem of brocoli, a piece of pumpkin and yellow melon. When cooked, the flesh is even more delicious, tender, sweet – but undeniably savory – and beguilingly creamy.
My zucchini indifference was short-lived once I settled in Rome. Romans prize their zucchini especially zucchine romanesche and do marvelous things with them. Cut into rounds, slices, diced or grated they are sautéed lightly in olive oil until tender and served just so or used as a sauce for pasta. Fat match sticks of zucchini are dipped in batter or flour and then fried until tantalizingly crisp in hot oil and served like potato chips in waxed paper bags, a clandestine snack best eaten with your fingers: soon shiny with oil, while walking in the sun along via Galvani. Zucchini are grilled, baked, braised, make a fitting filling for a frittata or ideal ingredient in risotto. Long thin strips are roasted and charred on a griddle pan then left to lounge in olive oil with fresh basil leaves before being served as an antipasti.
At many of our lunches at Volpetti Alice and I have eaten zucchini stewed gently with fresh tomatoes and basil, mopping up the juices with crusty bread. Left whole, zucchini are stuffed with seasoned meat or breadcrumbs and then baked, or better still, braised in tomato sauce. Small, particularly tender specimens are boiled or steamed and then served with good olive oil, salt and maybe a little lemon juice or sliced as thin as paper and the tucked in warm pizza bianca with mozzarella. Thinly sliced zucchini are also dressed with oil and lemon and served as a salad. And then there are the flowers, i fiori di zucca. I fell for the flowers first, beautiful to look upon but even better to eat: torn into a salad, snipped into an omelette, stuffed with ricotta or best of all, with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then fried until crisp and golden in very hot oil and eaten while tongue scaldingly hot with a glass of prosecco.
Having fallen for its charms, I took to cooking zucchini with a degree of over enthusiasm which is well documented here, in a kind of cabonara, Fusilli with courgettes, Frittata, Fiori di zucca, and now this Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta – Pasta with courgette sauce and bacon. A particularly clumsy name in English I know, but don’t let that deter you.
This recipe has much in common with both Fusilli with courgettes and another of my favorites, a weekly lunch and fixed point in my otherwise chaotic routine: pasta e broccoli. Like broccoli, zucchini when cooked until extremely tender in garlic infused olive oil – collapse, and with a little assistance from a fork, potato masher or cautious blitz with an immersion blender, create a soft creamy sauce for the pasta. This sauce also happens to be my favorite colour.
I am very happy to eat my pasta wearing just a green coat. The pasta that is, not me, unfortunately I don’t possess a green coat. But lunch is even more delicious when the green sauce is dotted with some diced pancetta or prosciutto that has been fried until tantalizingly crisp: the salty pork giving a kick to the good but undeniably mild and gentle (arguably insipid if not seasoned correctly) zucchini sauce.
This recipe, like so many of the nicest everyday pastas is pleasingly straightforward to make, but depends on good ingredients: nice olive oil, plump garlic and young, fresh zucchini are key. You could, as with pasta and broccoli, boil or steam the zucchini until soft, drain them and then finish them off in a frying pan with olive oil and garlic before mashing them. However as zucchini have a tendency to become water-logged and soggy especially when boiled, I think it’s best that you cook the zucchini in a frying pan, first with oil and butter before adding a little wine and water, This way the zucchini half fry/half braise and by the end of the cooking time are beautifully tender and much of the excess water has evaporated away.
I use an immersion blender – cautiously – to reduce the zucchini to a creamy sauce, but if you prefer a coarser more textured sauce I suggest using a fork. Is there anything else I need to tell you? Probably, but this post is already far too long for such a simple recipe and my son is eating the computer cable.
True to the Oxford English dictionary, my roots and as so as not to confuse my brother, I have referred to zucchini as courgettes in the recipe below. Best served with a glass of white wine obviously.
Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta
Pasta with Courgettes and bacon
- 6 medium / 9 small young, fresh, firm courgettes (about 800g)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- A small knob of butter
- 100 ml white wine
- 100ml water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 100g pancetta or bacon
- 500g spaghetti, penne, fusilli or pappardelle