A sunny dish for this rainy day: Zucchini alla scapece

zucchini alla scapece 1

Oh my . . . how long has it been! So long that I almost feel as intimidated as I was when I wrote my first post. In fact, one of the reason why I haven’t been writing is because I did not know how to come back. I kept thinking: “Am I supposed to explain my absence or just pretend I never left ? “. I felt like a child cheating in school, trying to find a good excuse to explain why I had not completed my homework. I have been debating about the right story or topic to return to my blogging, but nothing felt adequate.

Last month, on my FaceBook page, I posted a photo of a dish I had prepared for dinner, ” zucchini alla scapece“. The kind comments that I received and my subsequent promise to post my recipe gave me  the push I needed to come back. I finally realized that I didn’t need to justify my absence and certainly I did not need a big ‘scoop’ to make a come back. So here I am!

The heat wave of last month reminded me a lot of my summer days in Italy, especially when I was a child. The house would get very warm in the afternoon, my mom would open all the windows to facilitate air circulation which really didn’t help much. Despite the heat, my beautiful mother, wearing her sleeveless dress, her hair gathered into a fancy chignon, and tiny sweat beads trickling down her forehead, would spend many afternoon ” ai fornelli” ( by the stove). While thinking of her and those hot days, the one dish that came to mind were the “zucchini alla scapece“, I could almost smell the oil frying.

I am keeping my promise and here it is is my mother’s recipe of  ‘Zucchini alla scapece’, which is simply fried zucchini, marinated in wine vinegar.

The ‘zucchini alla scapece’ are usually served as ‘antipasto’ (appetizer), however, they are also delicious layered on top of some fresh mozzarella in a sandwich made with focaccia or ciabatta bread. In my family we also like to eat them as side dish.

I must admit that my mother’s original recipe includes an additional step which I have omitted. My mother used to slice the zucchini into roundsnot to thick and not too thin, but just right. She would laid the slices on a large tray covered with a kitchen towel and then she set the tray on a chair on the balcony in the sunshine. The slices of zucchini would dry in the sun and a slight curly edge would form. As a child I really didn’t know why she would do that; Only many years later – when I started to show some interest in cooking – I realized that drying the zucchini prior to frying would prevent them from absorbing too much oil; it would also make them slightly crispy.

My decision to make the zucchini alla scapece came suddenly and in the early evening. I had not time to dry the zucchini in the sunshine, however, I lined a tray with paper towels and I arranged the sliced zucchini on top.  I also sprinkled them with salt to facilitate the releasing of water.  I let the zucchini rest for 30 minutes then patted dry with a kitchen towel.

Zucchini alla scapece2

I hope the result would have satisfied my mom. It sure satisfied my husband!

Zucchini alla scapece

Cosa serve (What you need):

6 small zucchini sliced  into 1/4 inch thick rounds

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

A small bunch of fresh mint leaves minced plus few whole leaves to garnish

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup red wine vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil for frying

Cosa fare (What to do):

  • The first step is the prep of the zucchini as explained above. Prior to slicing the zucchini, remember to rinse them thoroughly under clod running water, rubbing with your hands to remove any grit.Zucchini alla scapece 3
  • Heat 1/3 cup of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. The oil should be enough to come 1/4 inch up the pan’s sides.
  • When the oil is quite hot, fry the zucchini in one layer, without crowing the pan. The oil should be hot enough to sizzle in contact with the zucchini.

zucchini alla scapece 4

  • Watch the zucchini and turn them over when they become golden on one side. When they are golden brown on both sides, with a slotted spoon transfer them into a serving bowl.

zucchini alla scapece 5

  • Drizzle with the vinegar, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, finally add the minced leaves of mint. Gently toss and set aside to cool down at room temperature.
  • Before serving garnish with few leaves of mint.

zucchini alla scapece 6

It’s a rainy and gloomy day here in Frederick today, I hope this dish will brighten your day.

Which dish reminds you of the summer hot days of your childhood?

The Mediterranean Diet. . . and a recipe too!

Did you know that with the New Year 2.6 million people started a diet? And did you know that 92% of those 2.6 million are already off the wagon?

I am not kidding, I was just reading an article about it.

I know for experience that it is not easy to stick to a diet. I tried them all, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach and so on.

What throws me off is the idea of dieting itself; the idea that you have to constantly think about the food you can or cannot eat, the measuring, the fat, the sugars, the carbs. . . wow that is a job  in itself!

I finally told myself, I am Italian, from Southern Italy, my mom used to cook delicious food everyday and still, she looked great and definitely she was never on a diet, so what’s the secret?

The secret is that healthy eating was a way of life, it was the way my mom grew up, it was part of her culture.

The secret was what, in the late 1950, the American professor Ancel Keys  defined as the Mediterranean Diet (Dieta Mediterranea).

Professor Keys was with the Allied troops in Greece and then in Southern Italy where he noticed the absence of obesity and that the rate of  heart attack was  very low.

He also noticed that the diet of these areas was completely different from the American diet.

From these observations, professor Keys, later developed a full study around the Mediterranean Diet.

The history of the Mediterranean cuisine is complex and connected to the people who lived on the coasts of this sea.

The model of The Mediterranean Diet has its roots in the Ancient Greek which deeply influenced the Etruscan and Roman cultures.

These cultures, in fact, cherished all products from agriculture, in particular wheat, olives and vines. The cuisine was distinguished by the use of vegetables, fish, fruit and dessert. These were then integrated by cheese and small quantity of meats.

The meals were consumed three times a day : colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) and cena (supper). This is how they are still consumed in Italy

This diet soon clashed with that of the Barbarians which invaded Italy in the High Middle Age (around 560). The Barbarian populations were mostly nomads, their diet was primarily based on gaming, fishing and wild berries. They also bred pigs and used their meat, but also their fat. The cereals were primarily used for the production of beer rather than bread.

This dietary style spread partially in the original Greek-Roman style.

The regions in the North of Italy quickly adopted the new diet of the barbarians, while the populations of Central-Southern Italy were disinclined to these changes and remained faithful to their cuisine, maintaining their identity and originality.

On November 16, 2010 the Mediterranean Diet has been recognized by the UNESCO as a virtuous model of health and intangible cultural World Heritage.

The term “diet” (dieta) refers to the Greek etymon “diaita” or way of life (stile di vita). The recognition from the UNESCO is precisely the recognition of a set of practices, expressions, knowledge and skills, that have allowed the populations around the  Mediterranean Sea to create, over the course of centuries, a synthesis between the cultural environment, the social organization and, the art of eating.

Image from "The Oldways"

The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes:

Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts

Using healthy fats such as olive oil

Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods

Limiting the intake of red meat

Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

The late addition of getting plenty of physical exercise and drinking red wine in moderation, makes of this ancient diet a true model of healthy and modern lifestyle.

We can all try to stick to these simple guidelines and still eat flavorful foods – Italian of course!

One of the secrets is to keep your recipe simple. My mom never used more than 5 ingredients in her recipes!  Also use  local, seasonal ingredients, watch for your portions, and take the time to really enjoy every bite of your meal. Every meal in Italy is a ritual, you sit at the tables with your family and you share the food but also the worries and the happy moments of your day.

Let’s give it a try! To get you started I will share the recipe of the Minestrone.

The Minestrone well represents the style of the Mediterranean diet. It is in fact a complete meal with its combination of fresh vegetables and greens, the use of beans, which provide the necessary protein, and small quantity of carbohydrates. You can opt to use small pasta (like ditalini) or rice. You can also use barley or farro.

Ricetta del Minestrone

Ingredients for 6

4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion finely sliced

1 carrot diced

1 celery stalk diced

1 large potato peeled and diced

1/2 lb. Swiss chard chopped

1/4 of Savoy cabbage chopped (original recipe uses lettuce)

2 ripe plum tomatoes seeded and chopped

4 oz. string beans (cut into thirds)

6 leaves of basil chopped

2 cups of canned  cannellini beans

salt and black pepper to taste

6 cups of water

Rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional – I always add it when I use rice)

1/2 lb of short pasta or 2 fistful of rice/person

Directions:

In a large pot heat 4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and sautè the onion, and  basil. Let the onion softened and take a little color then add all the vegetables except for the tomatoes and the beans.

Add salt and pepper, stir, cover and let cook on low heat for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the water, stir, cover and let simmer for 2 hours.

The next two steps are optional, they are my personal preference.

After one hour add the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and continue cooking for 45 additional minutes. The cheese rinds melt and make the minestrone more flavorful.

In the bowl of a food processor add half of the cannellini beans and 3-4 cups of the vegetables from the pot. Run the food processor until you obtain a creamy mixture. Add the mixture back into the pot, taste for salt and pepper and add as needed.

Cover and let simmer for additional 15 minutes.

After a total of 2 hours, add the pasta (or rice) and the remaining beans. Cook until the pasta is ready. (If you opt to use rice, let cook without stirring – not even once! – for 15-20 minutes. Do not overcook!)

Serve warm with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano cheese.

Perfetto!

NOTES:

I particularly like to use rice whose starch, along with the creamed vegetables, gives the minestrone a slightly creamy texture.

Barley and/or farro require a longer cooking time. If you opt to use one of these two grains,  you can add them to the vegetable mixture along with the  creamed vegetables, and then cook for 1 additional hour.