29 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: In Buon Campagna

SARONNO, Italy – One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in Italy is the Amalfi Coast in the Campania region of Italy. The volcanic soil under Mount Vesuvius nourishes the rich variety of vegetables like zucchini and eggplant that are grown there, along with the internationally recognized Castellammare Violet artichoke and San Marzano tomatoes.    
Castel Dell'Ovo, Naples
Today’s recipe is zucchini a scapece, a typical dish of the area. No, I’m not going to bore you with a lot of nit picky facts that I seem to find so fascinating, but you might be interested in knowing that the term scapce comes from the Spanish escabeche, a method of cooking and preserving food brought to Spain by the Muslims in the Middle Ages. The Spanish then brought it to Naples when they ruled the Kingdom of Naples during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Sometimes trying to unravel who brought what food/cooking method/ etc. to Italy is a little like trying to follow the breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel in the woods. But so far, it seems the Muslims have done more to enrich Italian cuisine than either the French or Austrians. Maybe, because the Muslims were primarily in the south and they had more to work with: better weather and better soil.
 The Bounty of Campania
That's not to say northern Italy didn't have its share of foreign culinary influences. Here in Milan, the occupation of both France and Austria are still felt with the two most popular dishes: costoletta alla Milanese, which is wiener schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel), and cassoulet, a rich, slow-cooked casserole of meat and white beans popular in France. Cassoulet is spelled differently in Milanese dialect but close enough so you'll recognize it if you see it on the menu in Milan.


150 ml red wine vinegar
150 ml water
Garlic – one or two cloves
Fresh mint – a few springs
Salt – Q.B.*
Zucchini – 1 kilo
Olive oil – Q.B. for frying
*Q.B. – as needed

Wash and trim the zucchini (1), then cut into disks (2). Put the zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with sale (3), then let them sit for a couple of hours. 

(in the sink or in a bowl) to drain the excess liquid (4). After a couple of hours rinse then under running water (5) and dry them with a paper towel (6).

Fry the zucchini in olive oil (no cheating here) (7), making sure the temperature is not too high. You don’t want them to burn before they are cooked. When they are lightly browned drain them on paper towels to remove the excess oil (8). Layer the fried zucchini in a casserole dish, adding salt, pepper and pieces of mint leaves to each layer (9).   

Put the wine vinegar in a pan, add the sliced garlic cloves and bring it to a boil. Boil for about 10 minutes (10), then add 2 or 3 tablespoons of the oil the zucchini were cooked in (11) and the pour the boiling vinegar mix over the zucchini (12). Cover with film wrap and let it sit for at least 24 hours before serving. 

How vinegary this dish is depends on the type of vinegar you use. If you prefer a less acidy taste, you can dilute the vinegar with water until you get the taste you want. If you want a more vinegary taste you can add more, or a different type of vinegar.

This method of preparing vegetables is very similar to “al carpione” of Piedmont and “al saor” of the Veneto. Now how that happened is another story altogether, but that will have to wait for another time.

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