a little discretion


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)
  • salt
  • 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.




Filed under courgettes, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, Uncategorized, vegetables

46 responses to “a little discretion

  1. Yes! I’ll do it! But I’ll have to buy my basil. It’s still so cold here in southern France – yes, really – that my little basil seedlings are still very baby indeed.

    • rachel

      The weather is strange all over Europe (we won’t mention the UK where is has just been plain dull and horrid.) Wishing you sun! Rather envious of your seedlings however small R

  2. Ah, suffusing the olive oil with garlic. I do it but never thought it might have a name – insaporire – now I know. Beautiful still life, by the way. Cicchirichi to you both.

    • rachel

      9 years here and I have only just learned the word! I think you would love the olive oil from around here. See you soon cock-a-doodle-doo x

  3. Lauren

    Thank you Rachel, beautiful timing for a beautiful post. It has made this horrid comute to work in mid winter so much more bearable. I will now spend the rest of the day dreaming about summer and the unavoidable glut of zucchini ♥

    • rachel

      Thank you for reading (on your commute). If I have made it sound perfect, Just imagine me being chased by four horrid dogs. Wishing you some sun soon.

  4. As much I I like the thought of your dish, it was your words that really inspired.

    • rachel

      It’s the sabine hills, they inspire (apart from the biting animals big and small.) I’ll say it again (as I mean it) thanks for reading.

  5. laura

    Karen is right. It is your words and your way with words that is so enchanting. The recipes (and clear explanations) are icing on the cake. Buon San Giovanni!

    • rachel

      Chicchirichi to you L. x Ps – Do you leave the garlic in ?

      • laura

        It depends on what I’m making and who I’m feeding. Most often though, I slightly smash the garlic “vestito” (i.e. without peeling it, as I think you do for your roasted tomato sauce – it’s extra insurance that it doesn’t burn) and let it suffuse the oil that way and then remove it. I love the smell of garlic (except on my hands, but those stainless steel “soaps” are marvelous for getting rid of garlic, onion and fish odor – and if you don’t have one of them, you can just rub your hands on your stainless steel sink under cold water and that works equally well) and I like the taste of it as well. What I don’t like is chopped raw garlic which is why I grate garlic – on my blesses Microplane – for things like pesto, etc. But I think I’ve already mentioned this.
        Forgot to say in my previous comment how very very much I enjoy your photos as well!

  6. Here, the garlic stays. And, I always fish it out for myself.

  7. We are happy to read that our olive oil has been used for “insaporire” your courgettes!
    Mario and Beatrice – Agriturismo La Casa Nettarina

    • rachel

      Your oil, apricots, cherries, eggs and bread are just delicious. We have had such a lovely time at your beautiful agriturismo! I am going to write more this week Rx

  8. One summer I worked on an organic farm in Le Marche and I participated in their garlic harvest. Throughout those two weeks we had every combination of garlic and zucchini possible: your recipe, garlic and thinly sliced zucchini, garlic zucchini and anchovies and just plain cloves of garlic (apparently a very good for your heart and immune system). Each and every meal was delicious and surprisingly satisfying and now the combination will always remain a quintessential Italian summer-duo.

    PS did you know there are male and female garlic plants?

    • rachel

      A garlic infused summer – sounds wonderful. I love Le Marche and would like to spend more time (eating) there.
      I didn’t, what is the difference?

      • Male garlic is shaped sort of like a shallot and at the farm I was on, the farmer always threw it out! He would say that male garlic plants are like male humans… worthless!

  9. Christine

    Growing up my mother would make us this with pasta so frequently with our garden haul that we used to protest its appearance on the plate. This and green beans boiled with potatoes and onions, also cooked until soft then seasoned with lots of ground pepper, salt, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Green beans are now a favorite. Still trying to work my way back to zucchini.

    • rachel

      Now I want beans and boiled potatoes with lots of ground pepper, salt, red wine vinegar and olive oil. In fact that might well be my next post – all credit to you of course.

      • christine

        You should have some! My husband looks on in horror when I inevitably drink the vinegar and oil at the bottom of the plate. (Because I’m a disgusting human being, who can’t help myself.)

  10. what I love: ” not really a recipe, rather a way to cook.”
    this is what we strive for–knowing the way, then personalizing it.

  11. “I let them fry for ages, until they were golden, unfashionably soft and oil sodden.” Ah. The key! Now I know how to improve my courgette cooking. You describe like no one else, Rachel. I love it!

  12. Brilliant post, beginning to end. I do struggle with “insaporire”. I lean toward rewarding “a prize” to the lucky recipient of a nice golden garlic clove. This courgette recipe is simply delightful.

  13. Hilary

    ‘wilted – like an English woman in the Sabine Hills in June’ – I am immediately transported to a nineteenth century novel (or film remake of same)!! I do hope you are wearing your best sprigged muslin!!
    I love to ask people what roosters say in their language, and chichirichi is one of my favourites, so I am with Luca on this one. Enjoy your holiday! xx

    • rachel

      I do have one muslin top, but have mostly been wearing things that can withstand a day painting with twenty kids. Thanks again for the other mail – indebted Rx

      • Hilary

        argh!! 20 kids!!! It’s not sounding quite as idyllic now! I Hope you have plenty of wine 🙂
        You are welcome xh

  14. SallyC

    My mother used to do this with garlic when making fried rice, taught by our Chinese amah in Singapore. I’d always wondered if it was a bit of a waste of time (although her fried rice was always absolutely delicious) – now I know it wasn’t!

  15. I love squash blossom, but plain courgettes? Not so much. BUT, you’ve inspired me. Ken

  16. thebreathingroomyoga

    I am suffering from a bout of insomnia tonight and I read your recipe in bed, with my cheek squished into the pillow. After reading your descriptions of the oil, garlic, courgettes and soft mozzarella, I realized I have been dribbling all over my pillow! What a nice way to spend sleepless nights, reading your recipes and dreaming of eating them. Thank you.

  17. Insaporire–one of my favorite Italian words–of course introduced to me by Marcella. Because of her, my zucchini always has been overcooked by American standards–but much more flavorful and delicious. Hope all is well with you and Luca. We are in the middle of a move and I am close to losing my mind.

    • rachel

      Oh I feel for you, I wish I could offer advice…but can’t. It will end though and then you can sit in your new place with a glass of wine and say ‘We did it!’ Lots of moving love to you xx

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  20. I really enjoy reading your writing, Rachel! I’ve resolved to slowly read through your archives every night. If you ever find yourself in Paris, holler.

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