Rachel Roddy Tales from an Italian kitchen
Courgettes with mint and garlic
For the past 10 years, my best cookbook purchases have been from Oxfam on London’s Marylebone High Street and the Mercatino dell’Usato in Monteverde in Rome. I visit both as often as possible, always feeling the same high on book-buying endorphins as I make a beeline for the cookery shelves.
Oxfam is small: you have only to walk a few steps, passing mostly women’s coats and Fairtrade chocolate, to get to the cookbook section. It’s harder at the Mercatino, which is a warehouse of antiques and junk. My cookbook endorphin, though, is stronger than the one for Apulian plates and mannequins. Will the shelves be the same as the last time, or will there be new arrivals? Has that first edition of A Feast of Floyd been bought?
While new books smell crisp and inky, secondhand books smell like old wardrobes and vanilla, and come with a history: the immediately obvious one, a name inscribed inside the cover, scribbles in the margin or a fringe of Postit notes; but also the clues that make you feel like a detective – the folds and creases, a smudge of sauce or oily print. Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking (one of a five-book haul from Oxfam) belonged to Siobhan in 1993: there are Post-its marking bagna cauda, tartelettes aux pommes and mon gateau au chocolat which, according to the margin notes, is “v good”, “needs 35 mins” and to “see Gary Rhodes page 233”. The mark in a €1 copy of La Cucina Napoletana by Jeanne Caròla Francesconi is both less and more obvious – it simply fell open on page 196, at a recipe for zucchine a “scapece”.
Alla scapece, like saor in Venice and carpione in the north of Italy, is a technique of cooking fish or vegetables by first frying and then covering them in a marinade of vinegar, aromatics and herbs. The origin of the word is Spanish
– escabeche – a reminder of the Spanish influence in Italian cooking, and dishes cooked alla scapece are often typical of port towns in which this influence first arrived with hungry merchant sailors.
The zucchine a scapece of Naples is pretty much the recipe I learned in Rome. Fry 3mm rounds of courgette in a couple of inches of hot oil until lightly golden – olive oil, if you can, as it tastes better, otherwise vegetable oil – blot, then cover with marinade. The new thing, for me, with this recipe is the way you make the marinade: you boil vinegar (say 150ml for 1kg of courgettes) with the same amount of water, two peeled sliced cloves of garlic and a crumbled red chilli for five minutes, before pouring it, while still hot, along with some of the frying oil, over the courgettes layered with lots of mint and a little salt. Like the stuffed courgettes I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, the mint is vital, like a breath of fresh air up against the soft, oily courgette, vinegar rasp and heat of the chilli. With bread, salami, olives and cheese, zucchine a scapece are one of the greatest antipasti, but also excellent with fish or stuffed into a sandwich. The book suggests a 24-hour wait, but a few hours will do, and I have noted that in the margin of my copy.