Fritters, sun-dried, zucchini flowers fried and stuffed (Fiori di Zucca), sautéed with olive oil and Italian herbs. Italians love zucchino, the diminutive of zucca “squash”. When grown properly it is tender and palatable. The thin skin need not be removed like its invernale (winter squash) cousin and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Italians love it. Every garden grows zucchini and depending on where you are in Italy they are at their height and plentiful all three months of the summer. Italians use zucchini in many ways: on top of pizza, inside lasagna, baked into focaccia, in soups and as a contorno, side dish. Our Nonna made them simply with onions and tomatoes sautéed in olive oil with basil and oregano.
Italians literally relish in the natural verdant flavors of zucchini and typically don’t feel compelled to turn this vegetable into something it is not such as a dessert mixing in cocoa and chocolate in a sneaky attempt to get their kids to eat more vegetables. They don’t feel the need to conceal its texture, treat it as a second class ingredient or masquerade its flavor. They like it and accept it as it is. There is not one recipe in The Silver Spoon, Italy’s most iconic cookbook, that uses zucchini as a dolce. Perhaps the closest interpretation may be as an ingredient in Verdure Agrodolce, a sour and sweet mix of vegetables in a vinegar and sugar base flavored with herbs and garlic.
However when zucchini is baked into something sweet, like this recipe from a family feast for Italian Cinnamon Zucchini Bread from Boston’s famous North End, pretty much anyone can get behind this Italian summer squash.
Together with Collodi’s Pinocchio and Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene is one of Italy’s most read books. With over 700 printings it is one the most referenced books on the science and art of cooking and eating well. Known as the “great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks” it has been in print continuously since 1894 and translated in hundreds of languages.
The common matter that these three books share is one of instruction and advice. As Pinocchio learns how to prove himself through the pages of Collodi’s book, Pope Francis recommends Manzoni’s book to engaged couples for guidance before marriage. Artusi, though not a trained professional cook realized a need for a book of instruction and began classifying Italy’s great culinary and cultural tradition of regional, domestic cuisine and what it takes to become a good cook. And what we learn from his writings is that cooking is both an art and a science.
Artusi believed there is a science or technique to the “art of making something as economical, savory and healthy as possible”. That technique is as important as the ingredients used in preparing a dish and affect the dish as much as the ingredients themselves. Artusi knew that to please the taste of Italians you need to combine la scienza e l’arte . Time, temperature and proper combinations are the science and the cooks’s intuition the art. He advises his readers with an air of scientific authority to make a dough more tender and digestible, add a little lard when mixing the flour with cool water and salt and “the schiacciata will puff up better if you drop it in a skillet when the fat is sizzling but which you have removed it from the fire”.
These tips on technique should not fall on the deaf ears of a cook. According to our Italian cousin Andrea who recently graduated from a culinary course of study in Milan, one should always chill your blade attachment and blender bowl in the freezer when making pesto to avoid damaging the tender basil leaves from the heat generated by the motor of the food processor. The science behind the art of making a great pesto!
It was another magical evening in Italy. Sitting under the vine covered pergola we watched the flames from the wood fired brick oven lick the surface of our bistecca fiorentina until it had become charred and brown. The scent of lavender and rosemary lingered in the air and as the sun set, the leaves of the olive trees glistened like silver. Framed in the door way of our casa colonica was a well-worn farmstead table with a plate of crostini and the obligatory bottle of vino rosso. And then it happened, out in the distance as if competing with the lights from the Tuscan hill towns in the valley below, flickering dots of white appeared in the sky. Like hundreds of miniature Italian “fairy” lights on a Christmas tree they began to pattern the sky. We were right in the middle of a light show courtesy of Luciola italica, the Italian glowfly.
Lucciola italica comes from the family Lampyridae, of which there around 2,000 different varieties in the temperate and tropical regions of the world. Glowflies (often called lightening bugs or fire flies in the States) can be found in gardens and naturalized areas from June through early summer. The ability to generate their LED-like glow is reminiscent of an alchemic reaction that occurs in the insect’s abdomen. Luciferin, a biological pigment activated by the enzyme luciferase, is fueled by oxygen and voilà, bioluminescence. Both the male and female are capable of producing this effortless glow primarily to lure prey, discourage predators and most importantly to attract a mate on those dreamy midsummer nights. The glowfly can only survive in extremely balanced ecosystems, where it can find its preferred food, the garden snail.
Together they are part of a balanced ecosystem and your gardening ally. The presence of glowflies illuminating your Italian garden is an indication that your garden is healthy and well-adjusted and living “la dolce vita”.