Now one thing that really drives me mad is seeing fruit and vegetables that are out of season pop up in supermarkets without even a blush or a by-your-leave. November is not a time for eating strawberries, nor should the desire for bell peppers strike you in January. It’s just not nature’s way and Madam Nature, let me tell you, knows a thing or two by now. It’s particularly riling in Italy, which as a country has quite an extraordinary range of climates (and microclimates), not to mention geological and geographical peculiarities that enable it to produce large amounts of food pretty much all year round. From the Alpine heights of the Südtirol to the balmy heat of Sicily, an enormous variety of foodstuffs is produced throughout the country all year and it is difficult to find any amount of countryside that is not being used for some agricultural activity, apart from the natural parks.
But nowhere will you find strawberries being produced in November. However, down in the Southern Hemisphere – or anywhere Monsanto with its patented vegetables rules – they’re churning them out, and those are the ones that are perched on your supermarket shelves. Now, I have nothing against farmers from the south of the planet. Salt of the earth and mostly living in the sort of conditions half of Dicken’s characters would have considered beneath them. But think of the enormous cost of transporting still-unripe fruit and vegetables from other parts of the world – enriching not the poor farmers but the transport companies and the big distribution chains. Think of the environmental impact. Think of the pointlessness. Think how great it was when you had to wait months for a taste of some fruit or vegetable, the excitement when you saw the first cherries in the shops. The fabulous taste.
So make an extra effort when buying to avoid stuff which has come from halfway across the earth. If you’re in Ireland, choose Spanish or Italian oranges, not South African or Californian ones (I’ll leave Israeli ones to your own individual consciences, but personally I’d boycott them). Choose European garlic, not Indian. Here in Rome, I do give in to the urge for a brussels sprout every now and have to buy Dutch ones since they’re not grown here. But I will never buy the Dutch potatoes on sale in my local supermarket, when the Abruzzo region, next-door to the region I live in, produces perfect potatoes at half the price and a fraction of the environmental impact.
Anyway, sermon over. But what all that was leading up to was my next recipe, Farfalle con zucchine or “butterflies with courgettes (or zucchini, if you prefer)”. Courgettes are one of those vegetables (yes, I know they’re actually fruits) that suffer from the all-year-round syndrome. So you won’t want to be making this recipe until at least next June. But do bookmark it, or better still print it off and stick it in amongst the collection of photocopies and magazine tear-outs that inhabit the cookbook section of your kitchen, in between Nigella and Jamie.
This is a fast, fun dish with few ingredients but really satisfying and tasty. And it looks quite sophisticated too, so you can impress your in-laws or whoever it is you feel the need to impress (a potential partner, client, creditor…). Just how good it is, though, depends on the quality of 3 ingredients: your olive oil, your courgettes and the pancetta. This is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes, so it’s a good idea if you can find a regular source of it if you’re going to be doing any amount of the recipes on this site.
Pancetta is basically pork belly, cured like bacon but differing from bacon in that it’s from the belly and not the side or back of the pig. It’s also dried for longer and, as a result, seems “less fresh” than bacon, though nothing like as well-dried as prosciutto. It comes in two basic forms: round (rolled) and flat, which is the version most of these recipes call for. The skin is often covered in black pepper and sometimes chili. It can also be smoked or unsmoked. In Italy, supermarkets sell sellophaned packs of already-diced pancetta, but it’s foul, pumped full of water and other nasty substances and is (of course) overpriced. Avoid.
A quick word about courgettes. Most of the time you’ll find the standard dark green, smooth courgette. But I prefer to use another variety which is more common here in Rome (where it’s known as the zucchina romanesca). It’s a much paler green and has a series of ridges running from top to bottom, as in the photo below. The flavour of these is much better. But don’t go berserk trying to find them – the plain old dark green ones will do just as well.
So, have you got your nice extra virgin olive oil? Your courgettes? Your pancetta? Then let us begin…
- one 1-cm-thick slice pancetta, cubed
- 6 tbs extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium courgettes
- vegetable stock (powdered versions acceptable)
- coarse sea salt
- 200g farfalle pasta
- parmigiano reggiano
Take a largish, non-stick frying pan and add the oil and pancetta cubes (the smaller they are the better). Turn on the heat and start gently rendering (look it up somewhere) the pancetta. In the meantime, slice your courgettes lengthwise and then carefully – let me repeat, carefully – slice them crosswise, as thinly as possible. Fingertips are difficult to replace, so watch what you’re doing and do not allow yourself to be distracted by fire, famine, earthquake or squabbling 6-year-olds.
Once they’re all neatly sliced, the pancetta should be nicely done (but not crispy). Bung the courgettes into the pan and give it all a good stir around, working the slices apart. Next, toss in a good pinch of salt. Once the contents of the pan have started bubbling merrily, drown their high spirits with a ladleful of hot stock, bring to the boil, reduce and simmer until the courgettes are soft, but not mushy (about 10 mins) with the lid on. Towards the end, say after 5 mins, take off the lid to get rid of the excess liquid.
As soon as you’ve bunged your courgettes into the pan and given them a good mix, put your pasta pot on to boil with plenty of water (remember pasta needs a lot of room). When it comes to the boil, throw in a good handful of coarse sea salt and your farfalle, stir and bring back to the boil. Once that’s boiling, reduce the heat a bit and keep bubbling away for as long as it indicates on the packet minus 1 minute. Then drain well and lob it into the pan where your courgettes will by now be done. Before lobbing in the pasta, though, double check that all the liquid has disappeared from the courgettes.
Now mix it all up and dole into your dishes. Serve with a mighty sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano and a couple of twists of a black pepper mill. Ta-dah!
You should now have something resembling this on your plate:
This dish works particularly well with farfalle, but you could also use penne. An excellent alternative to the pancetta (and possibly even better) would be to use speck. This is similar to pancetta but comes from the shoulder of the pig and is cured with a variety of herbs and spices, including juniper.