Volare, oh oh
Cantare, oh oh oh oh
Let’s fly way up to the clouds
Away from the maddening crowds
We can sing in the glow of a star that I know of
Where lovers enjoy peace of mind
Let us leave the confusion and all disillusion behind
Just like bird of a feather, a rainbow together we’ll find – Dean Martin (“Volare“)
After what has felt like the longest wait, the day of our departure is finally upon us. This evening, around 6:30 p.m. (EST), the Greek and I will board that most mythical and unheard of thing in today’s age: a direct flight, this one Rome bound. Needless to say, I am ready; in fact, I have been ready all summer, which perhaps explains the Italian state of mind–making and eating lots of delicious Italian food, from classic pesto to Venetian corn and raisin cookies (zaeti or zaletti); singing along, however, badly, to a Dean Martin station on Pandora while making dinner; reading Italian cookbooks; and, most importantly, attempting to figure out where exactly my Grandma’s family is from in Italy, so that I could perhaps go on some kind of pilgrimage to another equally unheard of thing, the ancestral village–I have found myself in since early July.
Call it a crash course in all things Italian, minus the language, which, yes, probably would have been the most helpful, but, with only 24 hours in a day and a day job, it just wasn’t meant to be, at least not for this trip. I did, however, have success where it mattered; with the help of another relative, I discovered that the paternal side of my grandmother’s family is from the province of Ascoli Piceno in Le Marché, which is along the Adriatic Sea. There are still relatives there and, as they own a B&B, a restored farmhouse 2 km from the sea with hammocks and fruit that can be plucked right of their many trees, I have convinced the Greek that we should change our plans and go there. Fortunately, he is a most agreeable husband and has decided, at my urging, to sacrifice the Venetian portion of our Italian journey, which we were both looking forward to. And thus the fantasy of eating tasty Venetian appetizers, cicchetti, and sipping Prosecco in a boat will just have to wait for another time.
Before heading off on our journey, I wanted to write one last post to tell you about the Italian dish that has not only been a revelation this summer, but that also has appeared multiple times on our table, mostly as a side dish on our weekly Sunday pizza night. Really, I don’t know how many times I had flipped through Katie Parla’s and Kristina Gill’s gorgeous book on Roman cuisine, Tasting Rome, before noticing it, but it is well worth a second or a third look. This dish is marinated zucchini, or concia (tanned or cured) if you’re in the Jewish quarter of Rome, or, zucchini alla scapeche in the south or zucchine marinate in Veneto. There are slight variations in the recipes for these dishes: in Venice, the vinegar is diluted with water and pepper is added, a nod to the city’s history and the role it played in the spice trade, while in Rome, either basil or mint or even a combination of these herbs can be used (mint appears to be the most canonical).
Regardless of whether you choose to add pepper or dilute your vinegar (I personally prefer a more bracingly sharp flavor), this is the most refreshing of dishes on a hot summer day. The hardest part of making concia is that you must thinly slice and fry the zucchini in hot oil in small batches; although it can be a labor-intense process, the end result is well worth it, as the zucchini slices, once fried, are transformed. Where once they were crisp, they are now custardy and soft; truly, it’s hard to resist eating them as you fry batch after batch and even harder to resist digging into the finished dish immediately. But this is a dish that requires resting, so that the flavors (garlic, herbs, vinegar, fried zucchini) can meld. There are times, though, when patience can be its own reward, and this is most definitely one of them.
Fried and Marinated Zucchini (Concia)
Adapted ever so slightly from Katie Parla’s and Kristina Gill’s Tasting Rome
Serves 4 generously and up to 6 in smaller, but still satisfying portions
Besides the frying, the most difficult thing about making concia is that it can be hard to find small zucchini in the United States. I always find that even the ones at the farmers’ market are massive–long and plump–and not at all the ideal pale-green and fluted variety, zucchine romanesche–that Parla and Gill recommend.
Plus, the bigger the zucchini, the longer it will take to fry them and the more oil they will absorb. When you don’t have ready access to the same type of produce that is used in far-flung places, however, the reality is that you must just use what you can find. I used 3 zucchini that were on the larger side and 1 that was smaller and somewhat fluted, and the dish was wonderfully delicious. That said, as we move into the last weeks of summer, Parla and Gill recommend that you salt the zucchini and let it sit in a colander for a few hours before frying it (be sure to pat it dry before frying), since the presence of bigger seeds in late-season zucchini can indicate bitterness.
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
a small bunch of mint and/or basil (this should yield about 1/3-1/2 cup leaves)
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
vegetable, sunflower or safflower oil, for frying
4 zucchini, preferably small ones (about 2-2.5 pounds)
salt and pepper, to taste
In a medium bowl (one that preferably has a lid), combine the garlic, the mint and/or basil (reserve a few spoonfuls for layering), and white wine vinegar. Set aside.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat 2 inches of the oil to 350 F (if you don’t have a thermometer, you can dip the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil; if little bubbles appear, then you can begin frying). While the oil is heating, line a wire rack with a thick layer of paper towels (I also like to set the rack on a cookie sheet to catch any of the drippings).
Fry the zucchini in small batches until either golden brown or darker (remember, the larger your zucchini, the longer this will take). Then, using a slotted spoon, transfer it to the rack to drain. Season with salt and pepper.
As you run out of room on the rack, begin transferring the seasoned and cooled zucchini to the vinegar marinade. As you do so, top each layer of zucchini with the reserved mint and/or basil. Once all of the zucchini is fried and layered, toss to coat.
Refrigerate overnight for best results, although, if you are impatient, a few hours will also do.
Serve as a side dish or, as Parla and Gill recommend, as a sandwich filling. No matter what, you want to enjoy this with some bread for soaking up the marinade.