I have not doing a lot of serious cooking lately, at least not the kind that results in a useful blog post. Most of my cooking energies have been expended on another project, which is wearing me down a bit (more on that at a later time). What I have been cooking for actual meals is very simple food, that requires minimal kitchen time, though not necessarily quick to cook.
The subject of this article is zucchini (courgette) slices that are slowly braised in a fragrant oil. It requires perhaps 10 minutes of actual kitchen time, but an hour or more to complete. Days even, if you choose one option. You don’t need to hover over the pan for that time, but you do have to be nearby, to keep an eye on the hot oil, not to mention any errant pets, children or clumsy adults that wander in.
The wait and vigilance are worth it though. The zucchini slices, scented with the pine-mintiness of rosemary, become brown and sticky and almost caramelized on the surface, and soft and creamy on the inside. It’s great as an accompaniment to roast or panfried meats or fish, or as part of a vegetarian meal (try it with pasta). I could have it every day, just on its own, if it weren’t for the rather ruinous effect it has on my waistline, even if the oil is good-for-you olive oil.
This is the taste of late summer in Provence for me.
Preliminaries: For optimal results, make some rosemary infused olive oil. Just put some good olive oil in a clean glass jar, about two thirds of the way up, then stuff the jar full with rosemary. No garlic, no chilis, and certainly not a dainty single sprig. Put the lid on the jar and leave it out on your countertop. Give it a shake when you see it, once a day at least. In a few days you will have a headily rosemary-scented olive oil. At this point you can leave the rosemary in to make the scent even stronger, or remove the rosemary.
If you are in a hurry, you can scent your olive oil as you cook the zucchini slices by putting a couple of sprigs into the simmering oil. Beware of the rosemary burning though, which will impart a bitter taste.
Slice the zucchini (courgettes) into 1/2 inch / 1cm thick rounds. Pat the slices dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel.
Pour 1/2 inch / 1cm oil into a large frying pan, and turn the heat up to HIGH. Put the zucchini in one layer in the pan - do not overcrowd the pan. Keep the heat on HIGH until the oil starts to bubble up rapidly, then lower the heat to low-medium, or to the point where the oil is quietly bubbling around the zucchini.
Leave like this for at least 30 minutes, until the undersides of the zucchini slices turn golden brown. Turn the slices over, and cook until the other sides are also golden brown.
Do not add salt during the cooking process! Salt will draw out the moisture from the zucchini, which is not what we want here. We want the moisture to stay inside while the surface gets crisp and caramelized.
Once the zucchini slices are darkly golden brown (they will have shrunk quite a lot too), remove them from the oil. You can drain them on paper towels to get rid of excess oil if you like. If you are using hydrolad, add about 1/2 teaspoonful at most to the hot zucchini slices and toss rapidly right now. Add a pinch of salt - don’t oversalt, or you’ll mask the delicate rosemary scent.
Serve piping hot, or at room temperature.
You can save the cooking oil for another dish. If you mix the braised zucchini with pasta, sauté the freshly cooked pasta in a bit of the oil. Wonderful!
I learned the slow braising technique at a wonderful class in Provençal cooking given by Erick Vedel  in Arles, the town in Provence made famous by Vincent Van Gogh (he left an ear there, literally). Chef Erick scented his zucchini with mint hydrolat - hydrolat is the water that result when herbs and other plants are steam-distilled for their essential oils. Getting a hold of hydrolat may be a problem, unless you have some lab equipment to do your own, so I’ve used rosemary-infused oil instead (I just prefer rosemary with zucchini instead of mint). If you can get a hold of either rosemary or mint hydrolat, by all means use that - I’ve included instructions in the recipe. Using a drop or two of edible essential oil would work too, but be very sparing or you’ll overwhelm the zucchini.
I’ll have more about Chef Erick’s classes in later posts, but in the meantime if you’re interested in a great culinary experience and you’ll be in the area, I can highly recommend his classes. (If you’re a bit persnikety about order and cleanliness and stuff, be forewarned though, his kitchen is let’s say, well lived in.) Here he’s showing us how he distills lavender, using his huge antique copper distiller.
Incidentally, I haven’t really posted a lot about my time here in Provence (though we have actually been living here for the better part of 6 months or so, with occasional forays elsewhere) because I have been scared of jinxing our chances of being able to stay here permanently, if I talked about it or something. I know, irrational. Things are looking up in that area now…once we are officially and truly settled you’re likely to read a lot more about it here. (That is in case this small mention has jinxed it! Ack. ^_^;)