At a recent ‘Made in Italy’ dinner, graduates of George Brown College’s Italian program set the stage for a summer of good eating.
As chef school director John Higgins handed out cheques from the Italian Trade Agency to students who cooked the winning dishes, he noted that cooking in Italy over the next few months will change their relationship with food forever.
So true! Italians are masters at transforming simple, high-quality ingredients, particularly vegetables, into amazingly delicious dishes.
Take the zucchini, the long, mild green summer squash non-Italians tend to ignore.
When I asked Sandra di Carlo, ITA’s new deputy trade commissioner, for her favourite zucchini recipe, she sent me a rustic pie of browned onion and cubed zucchini piled onto thawed puff pastry and topped with beaten eggs and grated Italian cheese before baking. Easy, delicious and quintessentially Italian.
Alitalia’s new Toronto airport manager, Francesca Farris, also newly arrived from Rome, says she likes to boil whole zucchini until tender, cut them in half lengthwise and remove the pulp with a spoon. Fill the boats with the pulp and its juices combined with tuna or ham, then top with bread crumbs and cheese (for ham) or capers (for tuna).
“Five minutes in the oven and you’ve got dinner!” says Farris.
A favourite summer dish from Piero Titone, assistant trade commissioner at Toronto’s Italian Trade Commission, is spaghetti tossed with circles of fried zucchini, fresh mint and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The zucchini-mint combo was seconded by another guest, Andrew Eade, chef de cuisine at Pusateri’s, whose high-end repertoire includes blackened salmon with sautéed zucchini and black quinoa.
I’m thinking it’s time to ditch the zucchini bread and give this neglected summer squash the Italian treatment.
- What we call zucchini comes from the cocozelle or Italian vegetable marrow introduced here in the late 1800s. California growers began calling it zucchini in the 1920s, and the rest of North America followed suit.
- Italians may recognize the Roman version, costata romanesca, with its mottled skin and pale raised ribs. The rounded, light green vegetable marrow, or cousa, my Lebanese grandmother stuffed is also a type of zucchini.
Buy & Store
- Choose squash with taut, shiny skin without dents, gashes or soft spots.
- Ontario zucchini is available for the next few months, with imports year-round.
- Though they can grow into monsters, harvest when small to medium-sized.
- Refrigerate in a plastic bag up to 3 days.
- Before cooking, scrub lightly under running water.
- Cut off both ends and serve raw or cooked.
- There’s no need to peel zucchini or other thin-skinned summer squash.
- Cut in any shape: rounds, cubes, sticks or tiny dice
- Strips: Cut long thin slices down the length of each unpeeled zucchini or use a mandolin.
- Make zoodles with a spiralizer for salad or cook briefly for pasta.
- To stuff, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out flesh with a spoon to make boats. Add flesh to your filling and bake.
- Because zucchini contains a lot of water, sauté or fry on high heat to help evaporate its natural juices and concentrate the flavour.
- Pan-fry: Cut in ½-inch (1 cm) circles, dust in seasoned flour and fry in hot olive oil until tender and golden brown. Drain on a paper towel. Green and yellow zucchini make a pretty presentation.
- Grill: Brush long flat strips with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and grill 4 minutes per side or until tender with grill marks.
- Zucchini loves garlic, parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage and oregano.
Farfalle with Zucchini
Cut up sauce ingredients before you cook the “butterfly” pasta and you’ll have a fresh, summery supper in no time.
12 oz (375 g) dried farfalle (butterfly) or fusilli pasta
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large sweet or yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
2 medium zucchini (1.5 lb/675 g), cut into sticks 2 inches x ¼-inch
2 tbsp shredded fresh basil
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup grated Parmigiano and/or Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (optional)
Bring a big pot of water to a boil, Add salt and pasta; cook according to package directions. Add peas 2 minutes before pasta is done. Drain well, reserving ½ cup (125 mL) cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens and turns golden.
Raise heat to medium-high and add garlic. Cook, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn, for 1 minute, then stir in parsley and zucchini. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 to 10 minutes or until zucchini are tender and lightly browned. Stir in basil and mint and season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove pan from heat.
Add drained pasta and grated cheese to pan and mix well, adding a little pasta water if too dry. Sprinkle with pine nuts and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.