Life

Casual Gardener: Rescuing the courgettes' tarnished reputation

Can courgettes ever redeem themselves?

Mauro Lavorca in his north Belfast l'orto
Mauro Lavorca in his north Belfast l'orto Mauro Lavorca in his north Belfast l'orto

For those who like to grow their own, there are few edibles easier than courgettes. They're as fool-proof as you get – as long as your earth's in reasonably good order and they get adequate water, a couple of plants should yield something you can actually cook with. They like a bit of room to spread themselves and you need to keep an eye on the developing fruits to ensure they don't get too big, but apart from that they'll pretty much look after themselves. The flowers are nice, and edible too.

The issue with courgettes isn't so much the 'How?' as the 'Why?'. Courgettes aren't Marmite, they pretty much universally underwhelm everybody, even those who want them to succeed. But before I give up altogether on Cucurbita pepo, I thought it best to talk to someone who's enthusiastic, evangelistic even, about courgettes – or what he likes to call zucchine. 

Mauro Lavorca is an Italian dental technician domiciled in north Belfast, who's lived in Ireland since 1988, when he moved here from Milan. The 56-year-old loves the people but he's less enamoured with Irish cuisine and prefers to prepare dishes from his homeland, ideally made with fresh ingredients grown in his garden. There's no known tradition of grow your own in the Lavorca household but over the past 15 years Mauro has created his own l'orto in north Belfast. 

His dita verdi were honed in the greenhouse, growing tomatoes.

"If I'm abroad on holiday, especially around the Mediterranean and I've enjoyed a particular type of tomato or vegetable in salad – I'll keep some seeds, wrap them up and bring home – most times it works but not always, as the seeds don’t always take to our conditions," he says. 

"But there's nothing as satisfying about going into the garden and picking some salad to go with dinner or green beans – last week we had stuffed some courgettes with cheese, ham and egg mix and served with green beans from the garden."

So far this year Mauro's harvested tomatoes, courgettes, onions, green beans, garlic, salad and, for the first time, fennel.  

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For him, the attraction of courgettes, sorry, zucchine is that they're "easy to grow and come in abundance".

"They're versatile and delicious – I've so many ways to cook them," says Mauro, before listing some genuinely mouth-watering methods, including slicing and frying with onion in olive oil until almost caramelised to make a great pasta sauce to mix with penne and top with Parmesan.

Or why not set aside the same courgette/onion mix until it cools and add to eggs and parmesan for a frittata? 

Grilled baby courgettes with pineapple salsa verde
Grilled baby courgettes with pineapple salsa verde Grilled baby courgettes with pineapple salsa verde

"We also use the flowers," says Mauro. "They can be stuffed with ricotta and dipped in a light batter and fried."

He also advocates stuffing and baking, or slicing lengthways, dipping in egg mix, then into breadcrumbs and frying, as a "great side dish".

"They are also handy to add along with aubergines, onions, potatoes or whatever else you might add to an oven casserole," he adds. 

This year's crop includes a yellow (unknown) variety which Mauro says have a "firmer crisper texture than most green varieties". 

He's also grown a ‘pumpkin’ shape variety but hasn’t cooked with it yet.

Frying courgettes in flour batter means high fat content
Frying courgettes in flour batter means high fat content Frying courgettes in flour batter means high fat content

Mauro's enthusiasm for zucchine is infectious and for me has prompted some personal revision of its status.

Yet he's still not sure that this fruit, the most defining characteristic of which is arguably its phallic shape, will ever catch on Ireland. 

"I've given some to friends and they’ve looked at them quizzically, as if to say ‘What the hell am I supposed to do with that?'"