During the last two weeks I’ve watched four cooks in four kitchens do exactly the same thing. That is, pull two cloves from a bulb of garlic, peel them, fry them gently whole in plenty of olive oil until soft, golden and fragrant, then remove them. The answer as to why was – give or take a gesture – exactly the same: insaporire. Which literally translated means to flavour or make tasty. Which on these four occasions meant allowing the garlic to impart its savory and earthy perfume into the oil then – like a good guest, neither dominating or outstaying his welcome – take leave.
I’ve come to understand – finally – that this process, insaporire, is key to countless Italian dishes. The process can be more involved: garlic, herbs, spices, vegetables and cured meat, but mostly it’s as simple as garlic cooked until mild, fragrant and sweet in olive oil. Of course there are occasions when a potent roar of chopped, smashed or crushed garlic is required. Rarely though! Most of the time it’s this attentive sizzle of garlic in olive oil that provides the deeply but discreetly flavoured start to a dish.
Of course opinions differ as to the precise moment you should remove the garlic, the ideal shade of golden and if it’s appropriate to return the cloves to the pan (as was the case with the third cook and her pan of fresh tomato sauce in which the returned clove; soft and sweet provided a prize on one plate.) But the principle remains the same and one thing absolutely clear: never burn the garlic or it will be bitter.
We are staying in an agriturismo in the Sabine hills just of north of Rome. I know the area relatively well having spent lots of time with my friends Ezio and Ruth, their house being situated just a few curves of the road and an olive grove away. In fact we walk the curved road each morning at about 7 30, the sun already omnipotent, the air thick with the scent of honeysuckle, the peace interrupted only by three horrid little dogs snarling and snapping at our ankles on the first curve. Having run the gauntlet of the canine onslaught and in the safety of the second curve, I’ve been trying to teach Luca to say cock-a-doodle-doo. Chicchirichi he squeals. I’ve tried to explain that cocks go cock-a-doodle-doo not chicchirichi to which he replies chicchirichi.
Ezio was the fourth of the four cooks. Making lunch for Ruth, Daisy, Felix, Luca and me while we cleared up wearily after a hot and hectic morning in the English garden: our rogue English summer school, he poured far more extra virgin olive oil than any recipe would dare to suggest – cold pressed from their own olives – into the bottom of the well seasoned pan. He then put the pan over a medium flame and added two peeled cloves. The cloves sizzled gently – shimmied really, in their coats of tiny bubbles – for the whole of our conversation. So, about five minutes. The kitchen smelt of good things. He then removed the garlic.
For this particular lunch Ezio first added cooked chickpeas and their broth to the garlic infused oil, then pasta, for an elemental pasta e ceci of sorts. It was simple, satisfying and delicious, the garlic, like well-chosen background music, enhancing but never intruding.
Then back at the agriturismo, eager to practice my attentive sizzle in Mario and Beatrice’s golden olive oil, I did as Ezio and the three cooks before him had done; I took two cloves. To my well-flavoured oil I added local courgettes cut into thick coins. I let them fry for ages, until they were golden, unfashionably soft and oil sodden. I added courgette flowers and several basil leaves (torn not chopped) to the pan before pulling it from the heat so the leaves and flowers wilted – like an English woman in the Sabine hills in June – and their sweet, spicy scent bloomed in the residual heat.
I left them to sit for a while so the flavors could settle and the oily juices thicken. I ate them just warm with a ball of weeping mozzarella di bufala and bread, a supper so nice it made up for the unilateral mosquito attack.
Not really a recipe rather a way to cook. Practice and then apply as you feel fit.
Courgettes cooked in olive oil
serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter.
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large or three small cloves of garlic
- 6 – 8 courgettes (ideally the pale creamy green and ribbed variety with flowers still attached)
- basil leaves
Pour a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil into a heavy based sauté pan. Peel and add the whole cloves of garlic to the pan. Warm the olive oil over a medium flame allowing the garlic to sizzle gently – turning the cloves every now and then – for about 5 minutes or until it is soft, golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic.
Remove the flowers and set them aside and then slice the courgettes into thick coins. Add the courgettes to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt. Turn the courgettes in the oil until each coin is glistening with oil. Allow the courgettes to sizzle gently – turning them occasionally – over a medium low flame until they are very soft and just a little golden. This will take about 15 – 25 minutes depending on the courgettes.
Tear the basil and the courgette flowers into small pieces and add them to the pan. Pull the pan from the heat and stir, allowing the flowers and basil to wilt in the residual heat.
Season and serve as a antipasto with mozzarella, stirred into pasta or as a vegetable side dish.