in praise of the courgette

The courgette is an inconsistent friend. It can be wonderful in a frittata, a gratin or pasta sauce, or indeed turned into pasta itself in the modern fashion for ‘zucchini linguine’. But even slightly overcook it and it is mushy, and on occasion from dubious sellers may be bitter and quite disgusting. To maximise your chances of getting a good one, eat now: they are at their best until the end of September.

Of all the vegetables to grow yourself in the garden, the courgette should be top of your list, for then you can pick them when they’re still under 10 centimetres in length. The smaller, the better when it comes to this veg – you want them crunchy and sweet. While they are very young, you can even eat them raw in a salad, but let them swell for too long on the vine and you will be left with a marrow.

If shop-bought is the only option, use Jane Grigson’s handy tip: reject any whose skin is so tough it cannot be wrinkled easily with your fingernail; once it hardens, it is on its way to Marrowland. Courgettes, will usually be dark green in colour, but they come in lighter green shades too, and in markets you may come across deep yellow or orange varieties. None require peeling, just topping, tailing and then slicing as you please. Doing so on the diagonal can be useful to expose more of the flesh to flavourings and to the heat of the pan for quicker cooking.

The courgette has its biological origins in the Americas, before entering Italian cuisine in the 19th century, migrating to France and finally here. It is a variety of cucurbit, the same family as cucumber, melon and squash. Indeed, both Italians and French named it after the squash: the Italian word is zucca, for zucchini, and the French courge for courgette.

Elizabeth David first popularised the veg in this country and, for something unusual and exotic, try her take on the Sicilian dish zucchini agrodolce. Salt sliced courgettes in a colander for an hour, then cook in olive oil. When nearly tender, season with plenty of fresh black pepper, a little powdered cinnamon, wine vinegar and sugar. You will be left with a concentrated sweet and sour jus bathing your veg.

Courgettes can also be grated to use in a variation on bubble and squeak, or turned into summery fritters as the Turks, and Nigella, like to do. They can take the place of aubergines in a parmigiana or moussaka; you can make them into a simple Indian accompaniment, like Asma Khan’s courgette sabzi; or bake them around the roast chicken as you would potatoes, so they become caramelised and burst in hot, juicy mouthfuls.

You’ll have a refined canapé if you cut translucent-thin slices with a mandoline and then wrap around ricotta with walnuts and chargrilled peppers, as Gino D’Acampo explains. And try using them in baking too: to moisten cakes, in scones or even as a soufflé, as Delia does.

Most simply of all, I like to slice a few small courgettes and cook slowly until golden in a pan with plenty of fruity olive oil and a crushed garlic clove. When cooked, throw a big handful of your favourite soft herbs into the pan – basil or parsley work well. Add some seasoning and a good squeeze of lemon, stir gently and they’re ready.

Finally, you mustn’t forget the flower – a courgette’s pride and joy. Stuff with a mascarpone filling and deep-fry in crisp batter and you will have a salivating starter (or be even bolder with the flavour and fill, as Rick Stein does, with salt cod). Alternatively, do as the Greeks do and stuff the flowers with little balls of flavoured rice, like botanical arancini. Blooming brilliant.

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