Recipe: Braised Zucchini with Fennel, Black Olives, and Bay Leaves
Rumor has it Sicilians have devised 300 ways to prepare eggplant. That may be. Not so zucchini. Where is all that Sicilian creativity when we really need it? I was rummaging through my old half Sicilian head and also consulting my vast collection of Southern Italian cookbooks in search of zucchini inspiration and wasn’t coming up with anything particularly exciting. So I did what any good cook does. I switched gears and moved my culinary brain over to another venue. I chose Provence, not the real Provence but what my palate tells me is the Provence that should exist (and maybe it does). And I knew I needed to get a move on, since zucchini are everywhere now, getting stronger, bigger, multiplying, and they’re potentially so boring when not in the right hands. I think I have the right hands. Trust me, I’ve come up with something good.
Instead of reaching for anchovies (why do I always do that?), I chose thyme, bay leaf, a splash of pastis, and Niçoise olives to flavor up a handful of gorgeous, dark green, still relatively small zucchini I picked up at the Union Square market from my friends at Migliorelli Farm. And I decided to use a rather large baton cut (see photo), somehow reasoning that this was more French than the usual thin slices or small cubes I automatically go for when I’m fashioning an Italian zucchini recipe (they were how my grandmother and mother cut it, so I assume they’re the Italian way). Ever notice how vegetables can taste different depending on how you slice them? No? Give it some head thought next time. Zucchini, to my palate, tastes a drop fishy when cut into thin rounds, but in a good way (and, no, that’s not because I tend to add anchovies), but choosing the baton shape for this recipe I felt I achieved a mellower flavor, possibly, I’m thinking, because this cut is meatier, allowing less crispy caramelization and more clean zucchini flavor.
I ate this as a main course with bread, but it would go nicely with grilled fish, maybe a handful of little rougets, seasoned with olive oil and lemon.
Braised Zucchini with Fennel, Black Olives, and Bay Leaves
(Serves 4 or 5)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large summer onion, cut into small dice, using some of the tender green stem
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into not too thin strips
5 medium zucchini, cut into approximately 2-inch batons, not too thick
Freshly ground black pepper
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A drizzle of pastis, such as Pernod (about 2 teaspoons at the most)
2 large round summer tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
8 large thyme sprigs, stemmed, the leaves left whole
A handful of Niçoise olives, pitted or not
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion and the fennel, and sauté until both are just starting to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini, season with salt and black pepper, and give everything a stir. Let this sauté about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, and let it release its perfume without browning. Add the pastis, and let it boil for a minute. Add the tomatoes and the bay leaves, and simmer at a lively bubble until all the vegetables are just tender and the tomatoes have given off some juice, about 5 minutes longer. Add the thyme and the olives, and give everything a good stir. Turn off the heat, and let the dish sit on the stove for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Check for seasoning and add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Note: I put the olives in at the end so they wouldn’t simmer and add bitterness. That’s why you don’t see them in the photo, which I took half way through the cooking.