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Zucchine alla scapece, before summer slips away

zucchine alla scapece

Zucchine alla scapece is a classic Neapolitan recipe. I’ve been cooking a lot of them for the guests of As Soup As Possible events this summer. I even included zucchine alla scapece in a wedding catering in June, so I can safely say this is the courgette dish I’ve cooked most during summer 2017 – if not my entire life.This refreshing dish is a flavour blast and consists in deep-fried courgettes, marinated in a dressing of vinegar, garlic and mint. Simple as it sounds, its taste is surprisingly articulated.
A pillar of Neapolitan summer menus, zucchine alla scapece are little known abroad, and I’ve been asked for the recipe by so many guests this summer that I’m really happy to finally share it.

“Zucchine alla scapece” … What’s in a name?

Zucchine alla scapece literally means “scapece-style courgettes” in Italian. I know: a literary translation doesn’t help you, but Italian speakers don’t have it easier, this time.
“Scapece” is a culinary term of unclear origin, indicating a specific vinegar dressing typical of the Neapolitan cuisine, and common in other regions of Southern Italy.

Some believe the term derives from the Latin words ex Apicio, meaning “from Apicio”. According to this theory, the dressing would have been made famous by Marcus Gavius Apicius, Roman cook and gastronomist who lived around the 1st century AD and is believed to be the author (or one of multiple authors) of De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), our main source about ancient Roman cuisine.

Others claim the word scapece comes from the Spanish language, instead. The term would be the Italian version of the Spanish escabeche – a way to marinate food with a vinegar based mixture – and could have spread during the Spanish domination of Naples, around the XVI century.

What’s for sure is that zucchine alla scapece have been around for centuries and derive from the use of marinating food in a mixture of vinegar, garlic and herbs, to extend its duration.

A safe bet.

Unless you dislike vinegar, garlic or mint, zucchine alla scapece is one of the most delicious ways you can taste courgettes. The down side of this dish is that it’s time-consuming and it will keep you by the frying pan for quite a while. On the other hand, they can be kept in the fridge for a few days, and they will sure be missed when they’re gone, so the best advice I can give you is: once you set off to make zucchine alla scapece, make a generous batch!

This dish is a great side to a variety of courses and can be combined with almost anything. You can even use

Ingredients

The whimsical Dutch weather is giving us some proper summer days, this week, so if you live in the Netherlands this might be the best time to give it a go.
Feel free to raise an eyebrow, but I’ve been taught sunshine is one of the main ingredients of this delicious side-dish. The other ingredients, for 6-8 portions, are:

  • Courgettes, 2kg. Whenever possible, go for the small ones. They are tastier and less watery.
  • Extra virgin olive oil, at least 1 l. As an alternative, you can use peanut oil.
  • White wine vinegar, about 2 cups
  • Fresh mint (or mentuccia romana) leaves from a bunch
  • Garlic, 4-6 cloves
  • Salt

All'ombra delle zucchine.

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Directions

  1. The first thing to do is prepare your courgettes: wash and wipe them dry, cut off both ends and slice crosswise into rounds 4 to 5 mm thick.
    zucchine alla scapece

    You want the slices to be 4 or 5 mm thick.

    It’s very important not to make them too thin, or they will easily burn.

  2. Before deep-frying them, we need to eliminate excess water from our courgettes, especially if you couldn’t help buying the huge, watery ones you find in supermarkets these days… I like telling myself Theodore Roosevelt’s motto “do what you can, with what you have, where you are”, so I don’t blame you if that’s all you could find. Try to make the most out of those watermelon-like courgettes, though!
    Put the slices side by side on a clean tea towel (one that hasn’t been treated with softer) and lay them in the sun until their surface is dry, then flip them to expose the other side.
    Growing up in Naples, I remember my grandma covering the balcony table in courgettes and stressing the importance of this step in the preparation of zucchine alla scapece.
    If the weather isn’t on your side, remember what Roosevelt said and lay the courgettes on your kitchen table, instead. It will take longer, and it’s not the same, but it works anyway (just don’t tell my nonna).
  3. Pour olive oil in a frying pan. The best option would be a pan with straight sides where you can safely pour a 3cm layer of oil.
    If you prefer, you can use peanut oil instead. It has a good cooking performance, and its taste is more neutral than olive oil, so it’s widely used in deep-fried dishes when you don’t want the oil to affect the other ingredients.
    With zucchine alla scapece, unless you’re particularly averse to olive oil, I would say stick to olive oil: it helps frying your courgettes without soaking them and it adds to the final flavour of this dish wonderfully.
    Switch the stove on, on medium heat. You want the courgettes to float in hot oil, so make sure to use a generous amount of it and wait until the oil is hot enough before you start frying them.
  4. While the oil gets to temperature, prepare a dressing with one cup of vinegar, chopped garlic and bits of mint leaves that you will tear by hand.
  5. If you have a thermometer, monitor the oil temperature and start deep-frying the courgettes when it gets to 180 °C. If you don’t have one, the good old way will do: test it with one slice of courgette and check whether it fries immediately.
    zucchine alla scapece

    Fry the slices in small batches until golden.

    Deep-fry the rounds in small batches, to ensure they have enough room to move around without overlapping too much, be flipped and cook evenly. Avoiding cramming the pan with too many at a time will also keep the oil temperature more stable. This will help the courgette fry properly, without soaking up too much oil.

  6. Keep a close watch over them, gently flipping them once or twice. When the courgettes are golden on both sides (it should happen in about 5 minutes, depending on how thick and watery they are), fish them out with a wire strainer and lay them on a plate covered in kitchen paper.
  7. Continue to deep-fry all the courgettes. In the meantime, move the ones that have been dripping on kitchen paper to a container and keep replacing the paper when it gets oily.
  8. Layer the courgettes in the container, sprinkling each layer with a pinch of salt, mint leaves, bits of garlic and vinegar. Finally pour some of the marinated condiment you’ve made in the beginning on top of the final layer. How much you will use depends on the final volume of your courgettes. The liquid should be spread evenly without accumulating at the bottom. A juice will eventually form after a few hours, but in the beginning you shouldn’t have excess vinegar in your container.
  9. Cover the container and let the dish marinate for a few hours before serving.

The different flavours will blend together and intensify over time thanks to marination and your zucchine alla scapece will be particularly aromatic the day after.

 

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