There are four quintessential Italian summer vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini. Of these, zucchini seems to get the least respect, maybe because zucchini plants are so incredibly prolific. New zucchini can literally sprout from one day to another, and the production can really get out of hand. I remember that one year in Rome we decided to plant zucchini and, not knowing their awesome fecundity, I planted four of them. Well, we soon had bushels of zucchini, enough to start a small agro-business. I soon learned my lesson and planted only one in subsequent years. That was more than enough for our household, with leftovers for friends.
That experience was a real revelation. The taste of home-grown zucchini was incredibly sweet—delicate but yet full of flavor. Alas, supermarket zucchini simply do not compare, but here is one preparation that makes the sometimes bland taste of zucchini come alive. The dish is called zucchine a scapece—also called zucchine in scapece or zucchine alla scapece—zucchini fried in olive oil and marinated with vinegar, garlic and mint, one of the most ancient dishes in the culinary repertoire of Campania. It makes a fine vegetarian antipasto or a side for grilled or roasted meats.
- 4-6 medium zucchini
- White wine vinegar
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- A bunch of mint
- Salt and pepper
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
You begin by cutting the zucchini crosswise into rounds—not too thin as they will reduce considerably—and then drying them out a bit to remove the excess liquid. This is a common procedure for a number of fruits and vegetables, including eggplant and tomatoes, to avoid an overly ‘mushy’ texture, to aid in browning and to concentrate the flavor of the fruit or vegetable; in the case of eggplant, it also removes some bitterness. The traditional, and still the best, way to dry the zucchini is by laying them out in the sun, on a drying rack or simply on a cutting board, for an hour or two (depending on the strength of the sun) to dry, turning them halfway through. They should not dry out totally, of course, but be dry and slightly ‘rubbery’ to the touch.
If it’s a cloudy day or this method is otherwise impractical for you, then you can use the more familiar method of sprinkling the zucchini rounds in salt and draining them, weighted down, in a colander. After an hour, pat them dry and proceed with the next step.
Once dry, shallow-fry the zucchini in olive oil, to which you will have added a clove or two of garlic. The zucchini rounds should fit loosely in one layer, so you will probably need to proceed in batches. Allow the rounds to brown a bit on one side, until nicely spottled but not uniformly brown (see photo) and then transfer them to a shallow bowl while you fry the next batch.
You sprinkle each layer of fried zucchini with salt (go easy if you’ve salted them as a first step), pepper, roughly torn or chopped mint leaves and some white wine vinegar. Sprinkle on some red pepper flakes, too, if using.
Continue frying, layering and seasoning the zucchini rounds until you have used them all up. Allow the zucchini to marinate for at least an hour. The flavor improves with time, and it is even better the next day. In fact, this is not a bad way to ‘put up’ your excess zucchini for a rainy day.
Many zucchine a scapece recipes, perhaps most, call for chopped garlic to be sprinkled on the fried zucchini as part of the marinade rather than fried with the oil. I prefer the method specified in the recipe above, as it gives a more subtle garlic flavor. And, especially if you’ll be eating your zucchine in scapece the next day, the flavor of garlic only gets more pronounced as it ‘matures’. But if you like a stronger garlic flavor, then you may well prefer this alternative.
For an even stronger flavor, the venerable Talismano della Felicità calls for not only adding chopped garlic to the marinade, but also adding enough hot vinegar to cover the zucchini rounds. Instead of mint, Boni calls for a mixture of chopped basil and parsley. In La cucina napoletana, Jeanne Carola Francesconi provides a similar recipe, but the vinegar is mixed with water in a 1:1 ratio and boiled together with a clove of garlic, for a somewhat gentler flavor. Francesconi suggests a bit of hot red pepper if a spicy dish if desired.
The scapece method was originally a way to preserve fish and vegetables in the days before refrigeration. The word scapece is said by some to come from the same Arabic word that entered Spanish as escabeche, a method that is used not only in Spanish cooking, but in Latin America and the Philippines. Others, including Fransconi, maintain that the method dates back to Roman times and that the Italian word comes directly from the Spanish. In Friulian and Venetian cooking, the term in saor (a corruption of ‘savoro’ or flavor) is also used when applied to fish dishes such as the classic sarde in soar.
The scapece method can be used to prepare eggplant as well. When making melanzane a scapece, the egpplant is often boiled or roasted in its skin rather than fried, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes is often added to the marinade.