Tales from an Italian kitchen
Like finding the right word, or remembering a name that’s been on the tip of your tongue all afternoon, learning a good cooking trick or tip can be an a-ha moment so satisfying that you say it out loud. Learning to check cakes for doneness with a strand of spaghetti, for example, was, and years later still is, a proper
a-ha! As are pressing an unpeeled clove of garlic with the heel of my hand so it splits and the skin comes away, rolling a lemon back and forth on the table so it gets juicy, or leaving a tapped hard-boiled egg in cold water for 30 seconds so the cracked shell comes away like a cloak. Even though these tricks are now common, it doesn’t take away from the fact these are daily a-has as satisfying as getting 12 across or remembering who played that character in The Long Good Friday.
It’s a similar feeling when you discover that something you have previously done one way can be done in a quicker, easier way. With the rice-stuffed tomatoes I wrote about last year, for example, it turns out the rice doesn’t need to be pre-boiled, and instead can simply be mixed with olive oil, the pulp excavated from the tomatoes and some seasoning, then rested, before being spooned into the tomato shells. I have now done this dozens of times, but I still always think a-ha! as the rice cooks and swells (ideally, so much it dislodges the tomato lid). It is the same a-ha! when I make Claudia Roden’s stuffed courgettes from her book of Middle Eastern food, a fitting book to celebrate this week, I think, because it has been transporting me for decades now – and also because it was the Arabs who introduced rice to Sicily, Italy and, ultimately, the rest of Europe.
A new revelation last week was discovering that, if you can’t find or don’t have an apple corer, you can hollow out a courgette by trimming the stem end, sticking a skewer to nearly the end, then swirling it – like you do when trying to get a beach umbrella into the sand – until you have a nice hole, into which you can insert a slim serrated knife, which you then use to twist out the pulp.
The stuffing you poke in the hollow is 200g minced beef, 75g dry rice, chopped parsley, a diced tomato, a pinch of allspice, and some salt and pepper. Roden advises cooking stuffed courgettes in a pan lined with sliced tomato (I add oil, too) and covering it with 250ml water with a spoonful of tomato puree dissolved in it. You then simmer, for an hour, and in the last minutes add pounded garlic, mint and lemon juice.
Herbs in cooking are like accents in words: they can change a dish completely. In Rome, the stuffed meat courgettes I buy from Sartor butchers on Testaccio market are sold to be simmered with tomato and the peppery and familiar fragrance of basil. A similar Sicilian recipe suggests tomato with oregano, which conjures up a Sicilian hillside – wild and musty. The mint, mixed with lemon and garlic, is unmistakably Middle Eastern. Like fresh air, somehow.
And now I remember – it was Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday.