When someone asks me “What do you like to cook?”, I almost invariably answer “Italian”. If pressed for detail, I sometimes answer “Mediterranean-style vegetable-focused cooking, with a strong preference towards Italy and occasional side trips to Spain, the Middle East and India”.
In fact, I cook Italian food so much that I sometimes wonder if I lived in Italy in a previous life.
When I buy Italian cookbooks, the first section that I turn to is the section on vegetable side dishes, otherwise known as contorni. Often, these are accompaniments to meat and fish dishes, but sometimes, I like to serve a small selection along with a piece of bread and a glass of wine as a light meal.
I am really picky about cookbooks. Far more than photography (which is nice but not necessary) and the writing, the recipes need to work, and they need to “grab” me. That last part is a mystical thing that’s not really quantifiable. I have to be able to see myself cooking from that book. The recipes don’t need to be authentic or traditional, but they get bonus points if they are. On the other hand, they need to say: ‘This is what I (the cookbook’s author) can do. Let me show you more.’ They need to seduce me. They need to touch me in all the right places and make me squeal. And this boy loves to squeal.
I’m the same way about foodblogs. You can find a few of my favorites by clicking here and scrolling down. A foodblog is a story about someone’s life: how that person got his start, the journey’s path on which she’s traveling, the inevitable destination. And recipes are stories about cooking; you begin with your ingredients, they undergo change, and sometimes result in something extraordinary. Anything can happen, and frequently does; it’s the anticipation that we’re addicted to. What happens next? In what direction will we go?
Zucchine alla Parmigiana (“Zucchini Parmesan”)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes — (1)
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
3-4 large zucchini or summer squash, sliced
1 large ball of mozzarella cheese, preferably fresh
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
(1) — Try to obtain San Marzano tomatoes. If unavailable, regular crushed tomatoes are fine.
For the tomato sauce:
Warm olive oil in a pot over medium heat and add the garlic cloves. (Tip: If you add the garlic while the oil is cold, their flavor will infuse the oil better than if you had added them when the oil has already heated.)
When the garlic begins to turn a pale gold, add your tomatoes, along with a pinch of sea salt and a grind or two of black pepper.
Stir. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce has thickened slightly. Taste once more for salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside.
For the zucchini:
Fry the zucchini in olive oil until the slices turn golden brown. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper-towel lined plate. Repeat until all of the zucchini have been deep-fried.
It occurred to me as I was frying the zucchini that perhaps I should have sliced them lengthwise instead of crosswise; the better to align the slices to my baking dish. When I make this again (and it’s a certainty that I will), I’ll try that alternate method instead.
Now you’re ready to assemble the dish. Begin with a layer of zucchini in a baking dish, then add some sauce, then slices of mozzarella and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Repeat until all of your ingredients are used up.
Finish with a final layer of sauce and a sprinkle of grated cheese on top.
Bake in a pre-heated 400 F oven for 30-35 minutes or until the dish is bubbling hot and the top has browned a bit. Cool for at least 15 minutes before eating.
This recipe is sized for up to 4 people.
Time: About 90 minutes, including prep.