Monday, August 3, 2009

Zucchini doesn’t exist in France

Nothing is French about zucchini. Zucchini doesn’t exist in France. France has courgettes, and we have entered the season of courgettes. However -- about ten years ago, I was in southern France on a business trip with a great friend, and we ventured out into a tiny medieval town tucked into a hill. The hotel had recommended the restaurant for offering food that would please the two of us, both vegetarians. We took a taxi and entered the little village and then the restaurant, a medieval building that had been adapted to a wonderful restaurant. The owner and chef greeted us and took us to a table in the back, through the kitchen. He moved the long table, disrupting somewhat a German couple already seated at the other end, and asked us what we wanted. We negotiated in not terribly polished French, and left ourselves in his hands. It was a wonderful meal, and the one single food that stands out in my memory remains the courgettes in mustard sauce. The dish was simple, a whole courgette sitting in the middle of mustard sauce.

Courgettes, our zucchini, is often under-cooked and can lack flavor, particularly when it is late season or overgrown. This zucchini was tender, flavorful, and very zucchini-ish. The mustard sauce was creamy and a great setting for the vegetable. It was such a simple preparation, and I’ve wanted to re-create it ever since.

It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, but research gives dismaying results. Mustard sauce appears to be heavy cream with mustard added. Heavy cream is not exactly healthy, and I avoid using it except when it’s the only option, and those tend to be treats. Zucchini in heavy cream is hard to justify when there are so many wonderful ways to cook and enjoy zucchini without heavy cream. But the wish to re-create the courgettes I tasted in the south of France remains.

How to cook zucchini – without cream?

Sauté very thinly sliced zucchini in olive oil with several sliced cloves of garlic and as the zucchini softens and becomes transparent, cook the pasta. If you love butter, add a tablespoon with the oil to create a buttery taste without adding tons of butter itself. Drain the cooked pasta and combine with the sautéed garlic. For 4 people, use 4-8 medium zucchini, or as much as you enjoy.

Zucchini is full of water, so you can use a lot of zucchini to start and end up with not so much zucchini to consumer. If you use yellow zucchini or yellow summer squash, expect more liquid from the vegetable as it cooks and be prepared. You can pour off the extra liquid, add some bulgur wheat and let it sit a while the pasta boils. The bulgur will soak up a lot of liquid given time.

Variation? Add 1-2 cups of ricotta cheese and some of the pasta cooking water as part of the mix.

Variation? Crumble 4 ounces of feta cheese on top of the zucchini, add some pasta cooking water, and toss with the pasta.

Variation? Add 1 /4 - 1/3 cup of lemon juice when mixing the zucchini with the pasta.

Variation? Top any version with freshly grated cheese and/or toasted bread crumbs.

How can you go wrong?

Well, we went “right,” finally, last week and created the Courgettes and Creamy Mustard Sauce (I wonder if that would be Courgettes en Sauce Moutarde? My French is pretty rusty). It’s as good or better as any zucchini dish I could imagine. Yum. It is the heavy cream abuse for the summer.

Zucchini in Mustard Sauce

4-6 medium zucchini, cleaned, sliced ½”

2-3 T. olive oil

½ c. heavy cream

2 T. Dijon mustard

Toss the zucchini slices in the oil and sauté them, letting them a bit brown and also soft. You should be able to smell the zucchini, and they will be somewhat transparent.

Place the zucchini in a 9x13 or other casserole dish – to allow the zucchini to cover the bottom but not be in thick piles. Mix the cream and mustard and pour on top of the zucchini, distributing the sauce all over. Bake at 450° for about 15 minutes, or until the sauce reduces and thickens and starts to brown at the edges.

Enjoy! And if the guilt is too much, adapt with less-high fat yogurt:

Zucchini in Mustard Sauce – with less guilt

4-6 medium zucchini, cleaned, sliced ½”

2-3 T olive oil

½ c. high fat plain yogurt (4-10% milkfat, a lot less than 35-45% milkfat in heavy cream)

2 T. Dijon mustard

Follow the instructions above.

The alternative has some fat, but less fat, and lots of flavor. I tried it with Greek yogurt, no fat, plain, also, and it was nice, but not creamy enough. I’d use the no fat Greek yogurt again, but given a chance, I’d set my compromise on high fat yogurt and enjoy every taste.

Who could complain about excess zucchini?


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