You can almost see my courgettes grow. Maybe not quite as impressively as the 9 inches a day I was once told an asparagus spear can push aside soil and stone to launch itself on to your plate, but enough to make me head for the garden through the summer and way into autumn, right up to the first opportunistic killer of a frost, with a sense of pride, anticipation and always, despite its continuously generous-natured bounty and reliability, surprise.
I wait impatiently for seed to sprout, for stem to flower, for flower to fruit, checking from April when the first frail seeds are composted, until July when each plant starts spreading its spiny, tubular, bendy-straw stems and its prickly under-sided leaves morph to the size of dinner plates.
If you have only a tiny front garden, a patch, a big tub, a roof garden, no matter; the profligacy and prettiness of the courgette and its versatility on the plate should be enough to woo you. Plant 8 seeds and you’ll probably end up with 4 fully-fledged plants worth millions of times more than their starter-price in gold. Edible green gold.
One of my plants is all-girl, producing only flowers, no green fingers of zucchini; the other 3 are offering a production-line service and I’m thinking of new ways to keep them happy every day.
I have never been ashamed to cook the same thing twice or thrice running. The joy of each thing in its own short, self-contained season is enough to make me always go with the glut greedily, then briefly mourn its demise until I move on to the next thing. Stick to the season and you savour the jewel. Grow it yourself, and instead of those watery, seedy, bloated torpedoes, you get spry, tight-limbed firm fingers, intense in flavour, squeaky, shiny-firm with water content low enough to prevent them turning to pulp in the pan. Picked digit-sized – or certainly no longer and fatter than a knife-handle – the courgette retains its texture and all its delicate flavour.
The enemy is water. In the pot, the veg or the plate. Never, ever cook a courgette in water. Try to seal in its flavour either with hot oil and speed, or boiling oil and batter.
I only ever get my deep-fat fryer out in courgette season.
Have you ever tried picking the huge, bell-shaped, egg-yolk-rich coloured flowers, dunked them in a yeast batter and thrown them into boiling oil?
The Italians know how not to leave even a morsel that’s edible for the birds or the compost, and, curiously, this method intensifies the courgettiness of flavour, the flower seems to hold the plant’s secret DNA.
A smidge crumbled off a square of fresh organic Rapunzel yeast, and by that, I mean something the size of a peanut, (dried yeast if you can’t get fresh will work), left in a couple of tablespoons of warm milk for 10 minutes somewhere warm, then whisked into 220g plain flour you’ve sifted into a bowl. Add a half pint of full cream milk and a tablespoon of rice or potato flour, whisk well with the yolk of an egg (keep the white), and leave under a damp cloth for a couple of hours. Whisk the egg white stiff, fold it into the batter and you’re ready to fry.
Heat the ground-nut oil – you need something unobtrusive for frying – in a deep-fat fryer until you can pop a crumb of bread in and it fizzes and turns brown instantly. Remove. Lower 3 or 4 flowers into the frying basket once you’ve dipped them in batter and shaken off the excess. Watch them fry for a minute or so before flipping them over with a slotted spoon when the first side is browned, repeat, remove onto kitchen paper on a plate to drain, sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper and eat as hot and crisp as all-get-out with a squeeze of lemon at most.
A great pre-prandial or a starter in its own right. The Spanish stuff the flowers with crab meat and bake them. A glorious alternative.
I make courgette salads with the veg sliced thickish and fried in olive oil until some coins are browned in patches and others are a little more al dente. I toast a tablespoon of pine nuts dry in a pan till they turn golden and strew them over the top off the heat with a handful of soaked, drained raisins, spritz well with lemon juice, season and scatter over some torn basil. Eat hot, warm or at room temperature with meat or fish.
Yesterday lunch I sliced a few courgettes wafer thin and cooked them gently in olive oil with a tablespoon of fresh tarragon and a whole clove of new season’s garlic just there to flavour the oil. After about 30 minutes I added beaten eggs and made a stunning green omelet. Last night I had a few baby courgettes left. I sliced them horizontally, coarsely, flowers on and cooked them in olive oil with a garlic clove in the frying pan, until barely tender, added half a dozen chopped anchovies, a couple of tablespoons of crème fraiche and a knob of butter, removed the pan from the heat as soon as the anchovies had melted, and added the zest of an organic lemon and seasoning.
Turned into some giant conchiglie – shells of pasta – and liberally sprinkled with grated Pecorino, a king of suppers, but hardly a princely sum to spend on it.