Tales from an Ital­ian kitchen

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast - Rachel Roddy

Stuffed cour­gettes

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.

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