Courgette, the star summer veggie

Courgette, the star summer veggie

It has been a while now that seasons in the kitchen have been altered dramatically. Only a few decades ago some vegetables were either strictly winter vegetables or fresh spring delights, or reserved only for summer tables. Root vegetables and cabbages ruled the winter months, artichokes and fresh fava beans were short lived spring miracles. Those were the days when tomatoes did not go ripe enough before July, eggplants ditto, and summer meant abundance of cucurbits of all sorts, especially cucumbers, squashes, courgettes. I remember, when I was a child, I liked the cucumber-yoghurt soup-salad cacık so much that they used to trick me making a mock one with lettuce, saying that it was a winter cacık, cucumbers simply were not available. Fresh tomato in winter was unheard of, only tomato paste was to be used.

Some of that vegetable seasonality still survives, especially spring sprouts like asparagus, artichokes and various other spring greens. But when it comes to summer veggies, it seems that we no longer cherish them only in the summer - most are available year around. Due to the advance in greenhouse farming, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and squash varieties like zucchinis and courgettes exist any time, any month. But memory remains, we tend to cook them more in the summer, enjoy them more, especially when we find the locally grown ones in vegetable gardens and fields. No summer table is complete without a bit of a squash taste.

Squash arrives in the Turkish table in a myriad of ways, stuffed, sauteed, baked, braised and the most beloved in fried form. Even this latter comes in varied ways, cubed and drenched in a garlicky tomato sauce, paper thin and crisp with a crunchy batter coating, or fried naked in thicker slices, with a generous helping of garlic and yoghurt sauce. However, the most common squash dish must be the stuffed courgettes. Simple and light, it satisfies every palate serving as a complete lunch. Stuffed with a filling of mincemeat, onions and rice, a touch of tomato paste just to add depth and color, and a good helping of fresh herbs like dill and parsley, served with thick yoghurt, it is both refreshing and satisfying without being heavy. Of course, there are elaborate regional specialties. One stuffed courgette dish from Antep cuisine incorporates almonds, pine nuts and pistachios in the filling. With all those expensive ingredients that goes into the filling of otherwise humble vegetable, the dish is called “damat dolması,” meaning dolma (stuffed dish) fit for a groom. Courgettes don’t always come in such elaborate forms, actually they are considered to be very economical. They are cheap, and moreover they are zero-waste. Whenever there is stuffed cucurbit on the table, the next meal is not hard to guess. The hollowed out inside is never wasted, but turned into fried courgette fritters, another summer delight we all enjoy, to admit a guilty pleasure of mine.

Then there are the lesser-known dishes. Some are confined only to the Sephardic cuisine in Turkey, especially the famed kaşkarikas made with courgette peelings. The full name of the dish is “Kashkarikas de Kalavasa,” kalavasa being courgettes or squash in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews. The same zero-waste logic applies, you make a dish with the thickly cut peels and with the unused seedy part, you make a courgette pie, flan or fritters. In Turkish Sephardic cuisine there are also stuffed courgette dishes, but they alter from those of Turkish cuisine. My food writer friend Deniz Alphan who has written a book on her mother’s kitchen says until a certain age she never could imagine stuffed courgettes being greenish and light in color, theirs were always deep brown, not that they used another dark variety of squashes, but the dish was doused with a heavily browned sugary sauce, sort of a caramel. The filling does not have rice as a medium to absorb the cooking juices, but instead stale bread crumbs are used. There is no onion, tomato paste, or fresh herbs, just bread and mincemeat. The most important, it is never and ever served with yoghurt as its Turkish counterpart, obviously because of the kosher rules that cannot have meat and dairy together. This summer I tend to cherish the courgette flavors with a Jewish twist, thanks to a newly published book on “Edirne Jewish Cuisine,” I am not short of recipes.

Book of the Week: The recently published cookbook “Edirne Jewish Cuisine” luckily features a few courgette favorites from the city of Edirne, once holding a major Jewish community, midway between Thessaloniki and Istanbul. The Edirne Municipality collaborated with the former Jewish community of Edirne, mostly now living in Istanbul or elsewhere, tracked recipes, and all the material was compiled by writers Aydemir Ay and Yılmaz Seçim. They also collaborated with the Quincentennial Foundation to hold meetings with the elderly in the premises of the Jewish Museum. I happened to participate in a meeting as a researcher of the Jewish culinary heritage. That occasion alone was worth writing an article, I still recall the ladies speaking simultaneously giving the same recipe as if an multi tuned canon of overlapping narrative. To admit, I failed to note down their recipes, just in lost in the joy of observing the situation, now I can find at least some of them written down. One way to order is here, from the Istanbul Sephardic Center.

Recipe of the Week: The easiest recipe from the book can also be the lightest and most fit for a summer lunch. Plus, it is completely vegan. The peels are simply braised in its own juices with olive oil, usually a few sour unripe plums to add a much-desired sourish note popular in Sephardic cooking. Interestingly the dish in Edirne is called Endjinaras, or Andjenarikas coming from “enginar” in Turkish, which is artichoke. In Edirne artichoke was rarely found, but apparently there was an influence of the Istanbul community who have always been in love with artichokes. So, even if there was no trace of an artichoke that went into the pan, it was cooked in the artichoke fashion, the way Istanbulites would do. Funnily, the dish is almost identical with the usual Istanbul courgette peel “kashkarikas” recipe.

Peel thickly four-five courgettes, reserve insides for fritters, flan or pie, cut peels into 3-4 cm pieces. Put in a pan with six-seven sour unripe green plums, or if no plums are available substitute with the juice of a lemon. Add a Turkish tea glass (which would be around 100 ml) of olive oil. Season with salt to taste, add a cube or two of sugar (believe met that is crucial), and add a little water, just enough to barely cover the peels. Braise covered until the cooking juices reduce to a sauce-like state. Serve cold or at room temperature. A last-minute touch of chopped fresh dill is strongly recommended.

Aylin Öney Tan,