Ev­ery­day feast

Rachel Roddy’s week­night pasta

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rache­leats

Wild mint grows in the cracks between the steps just be­hind our house in Gela. So does an­other vig­or­ous weed that smells a lit­tle like cat pee. And then there are the ac­tual cats, also wild, which slink up and down the steps look­ing both ter­ri­fy­ing and ter­ri­fied. Nei­ther, though, can quite snuff out the un­mis­tak­able scent of the mint – a cool men­thol breath mixed with some­thing musty. De­fi­ant clus­ters cling to ne­glected steps that lead down to a busy road in the mid­dle of this in­dus­trial city in south­ern Si­cily. Fur­ther down the road, past the old prison, you catch the scent again near a swathe of fichi d’In­dia, or prickly pears, which seem to grow out of a wall, the stems like suc­cu­lent pad­dles, each one be­jew­elled with a dozen co­ral fruits. There is fleshy purslane and a va­ri­ety of milk this­tle at the edges of the pave­ment too, re­silient tufts seem­ing to sug­gest that you can build a city on agri­cul­tural land, but na­ture will burst forth in the cracks. Noth­ing is for pick­ing, how­ever – by me at least. The prickly pears be­cause the spikes are das­tardly and fly at you, then re­main im­paled in the soft parts of your hand as hair-thin splin­ters for days; the mint, purslane and chicory be­cause, well, the cats.

I have en­joyed cook­ing with tame mint bought in bunches or cel­lo­phane-cov­ered pack­ets this past month in Si­cily – it has made a nice change from all the basil. Not that I have any­thing against basil. It is just that when it comes into sea­son in Rome and mar­ket ven­dors start stuff­ing it in the top of your bag like a shop­ping favour, it be­comes ubiq­ui­tous – sauces, sal­ads, stewed and stuffed sum­mer veg­eta­bles, all in the key of basil. There is basil in Si­cily too – masses of it. But whereas in Rome mint seems quiet in com­par­i­son, in Si­cily it sings from stalls and shelves and the cracks in the pave­ment.

It was a recipe in a new favourite book that prompted me to get the first bunch. The book is a slim, soft­back edi­tion of Si­cil­ian recipes and flavours for ev­ery­day and feast days; a prac­ti­cal, tech­ni­colour cel­e­bra­tion of pasta, al­monds, aubergines, cit­rus, pomegranates, oily fish, bread­crumbs – and mint, which Si­cil­ians use ef­fec­tively and be­guil­ingly with veg­eta­bles, meat, fish and fruit. I am not sure I have ever book­marked so many recipes in a sin­gle book, in­clud­ing this one for spaghetti con le zuc­chine fritte – spaghetti with fried cour­gettes, pecorino and mint.

Like so many Si­cil­ian recipes, this one in­volves fry­ing in oil – in this case olive oil; a source of plea­sure and rich, un­par­al­leled flavour. You need enough olive oil that the cour­gette rounds fry at a sort of shimmy, for which you can get away with just over 1cm (which is why you don’t want a huge fry­ing pan). Be care­ful the oil doesn’t get too hot by keep­ing the flame mod­est and pulling the pan from the heat for a few sec­onds, if nec­es­sary. Once the rounds are gen­tly blis­tered and pale gold, you lift them from the oil, blot on kitchen pa­per, salt lightly (and eat three straight away). Fry­ing brings out the savoury sweet­ness of cour­gettes most beau­ti­fully. The left­over oil is for toss­ing through the spaghetti – you de­cide how much to use. Be­yond fry­ing, you only need to grate the cheese and slap or rip the mint be­fore toss­ing both with the spaghetti, then fin­ish­ing with the cour­gettes. The heat of the pasta both melts the cheese and awak­ens the per­sis­tent scent of the mint, which is as lovely as the com­bined taste of all five in­gre­di­ents.

I knew this would be­come a trusted favourite al­most be­fore I made it. Not least be­cause it is an­other pasta sauce/condi­ment that comes to­gether while the wa­ter comes to a boil and the pasta cooks – one to be filed in the men­tal cook­book along with pasta with melted but­ter and tinned anchovies,

pasta with le­mon and parme­san, pasta with oil, gar­lic and chilli, pasta with burst­ing cherry toma­toes – all an­swers to the ques­tion: “What shall we eat tonight, and in 15 min­utes?” Dishes that, when fol­lowed by a salad, piece of cheese and ac­com­pa­nied by a bot­tle of wine, can feel like an ev­ery­day feast.

Spaghetti with cour­gettes, pecorino and mint

Quan­ti­ties given are just guide­lines: add more/less gar­lic/oil/cheese/mint ac­cord­ing to taste.

Serves 4

2 large cour­gettes

1-2 gar­lic cloves 120-200ml ex­tra vir­gin olive oil 500g spaghetti

100g pecorino, parme­san or hard, salted ri­cotta, grated

Salt and black pep­per

A sprig of fresh mint, leaves torn into lit­tle bits

1 Wash and slice the cour­gettes into 2-3mm thick rounds. Peel the gar­lic. For a milder flavour, crush it with the back of a knife so it splits, but re­mains whole. For a stronger flavour, slice. Bring a large pan of wa­ter to the boil in prepa­ra­tion for the spaghetti.

2 Fry the gar­lic gen­tly in the olive oil over a medium heat un­til fra­grant, then use a slot­ted spoon to scoop it out – it will burn oth­er­wise and turn bit­ter.

3 Work­ing in batches, fry the cour­gette discs on both sides un­til they have be­come lightly blis­tered and golden, then use a slot­ted spoon to lift them on to kitchen towel to blot. Sprin­kle lightly with salt and keep the re­main­ing oil in the pan.

4 Once the wa­ter is boil­ing, add salt, then the spaghetti and cook un­til al dente. Ei­ther drain the spaghetti – keep­ing some cook­ing wa­ter – or use tongs to lift it di­rectly into the fry­ing pan and toss in the left­over cour­gette oil. Tip the spaghetti into a warm dish or bowl, add half the cheese, a grind of black pep­per and most of the ripped mint and toss. Ar­range the cour­gettes on top and fin­ish with the rest of the cheese and mint.

I knew this would be­come a trusted favourite al­most be­fore I made it

Cook’s tip Make ex­tra fried cour­gettes and dress with a splash of red­wine vine­gar and ripped basil for a won­der­ful an­tipasti.

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