I received an unexpected surprise the other day: a box containing two books (one, love letters between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — oh, you do know me, whoever you are) and a journal perfect for writing down recipes, but there was no indication who sent it. I have my suspicions, but for the moment remain in the dark (as did much of the city a few days ago, when the power went out unexpectedly), though very appreciative and looking forward to delving into the books this weekend.
I have been thinking about memorable meals lately, and what makes them so: the particular juiciness of a tomato or the first slab of fresh feta that makes you realize all that’s come before it was a poor imitation. One of the reasons I love M.F.K. Fisher so much is because of her ability to write about specific, lovely meals she’d eaten and for her whole-hearted appreciation of them. A certain glass of wine, a dense slab of ginger cake, or tangerine slices left on the windowsill all compelled her to stop and savor the food, and the moment. It’s funny we can remember so vividly foods that touched us years ago — my first tiny cup of Greek coffee, for example — even though they have long since been digested.
Probably the dish I most remember is the zucchini I ate in a Tuscan farmhouse, bordered by sunflower fields, where we stayed for a few days in July 2000. It was located outside of Colle di Val d’Elsa, a little town about 15 miles from Siena, and felt somehow like home. This was my first time out of the U.S., I spoke only a bit of Italian — luckily, my companion was more fluent, however — and I was feeling slightly overwhelmed.
After a hot and dusty hike (a long story), we ended up at the “agritourismo” — and how fortunate we did. We had no car (post-college trip, on the cheap!) and the family sweetly took us under their collective wing. We ate all of our meals there, prepared by Gabriella. Probably in her 70s, she had an inspiring and vigorous energy — and she was an amazing cook. For some reason, though they raised wild boar, the family didn’t eat much meat (she said her sons rarely at meat at all) and so it was not strange that we requested all of our food sans animals.
Of course I can’t remember everything she served, but I do remember her zucchini. I think all the vegetables she cooked with were from her garden, and it was possibly the first time in my young adult life I ate fresh-picked produce and really tasted it. Her zucchini dish was quite simple: thinly sliced squash, sauteed in a good amount of olive oil and a bit of salt (and sometimes basil) on low heat until very soft — and nothing else. It still remains my favorite way to make it, and I think of her (and her shrieking grandson) nearly every time I do.
In retrospect, I realize this little foray was my first real “food experience.” I had cooked in college, but mostly just pots of brown rice and tofu stir fries (though I did become known as the baker in my household). I didn’t experiment too much then; food was mostly fuel. This zucchini saute, which I ate in a sweet little stone house in the Italian countryside we literally stumbled upon, changed that forever.
Squash with Basil
2-3 zucchini or summer squash, washed and very thinly sliced
olive oil (a good amount)
Handful shredded basil
Put the olive oil and squash in a pan and cook on high heat a few minutes or so, stirring so it doesn’t burn. Turn the heat to low, add more olive oil (the key is to keep the squash very soft), and cook, stirring occasionally. After about 10-15 minutes, the squash should have soaked up some of the oil and will be wilted and drooping. Add the basil, and salt to taste.