As ridiculous as it sounds, I can safely say that I didn’t meet a courgette until 1975. Growing up in the 1960s, I cannot think of an occasion when one appeared on the dinner table or was even mooted as a veg option. There were vegetable marrows, of course. They were usually the size of a man’s arm, and the only reason they seemed to be grown was to see just what size ‘arm’ could be achieved – Olympic weightlifter or Mr. Universe. But I never remember eating one – the marrow, that is, not the arm.
Then I went to Greece and suddenly courgettes were everywhere! There were kolokithakia stuffed with meat and rice, or grated and mixed with chopped onions and herbs and made into fritters. They were sautéed and stewed along with aubergines (another unknown vegetable) and peppers for briam. Sometimes they were added to a casserole of green beans. I distinctly remember one evening, my mother-in-law-to-be, obviously tired of cooking for the day, sent out for a roasted chicken from the local grill-shop. This being an easy meal, she fried up a mountain of exquisite, wafer-thin courgette crisps to go with it.
Then there were courgette flowers too – who’d have thought?! It is a thing of wonder that those bright yellow blooms could be turned into little fragrant, golden parcels of deliciousness. Courgettes had shifted from unknown to indispensable in one summer.
As the pre-cataclysmic, panic phase of March 2020 set in, I decided action needed to be taken. It seems a bit over the top now, but there was a point early on in lockdown when vegetables were really hard to get hold of. It even seemed possible that supplies from abroad might dry up, so ’growing our own’ seemed like a reasonable option. The nurturing of the fledgling veg started.
Growing mediterranean vegetables in the north of England requires a lot of patience and indoor warmth. In the absence of a greenhouse, the little plants took up residence in our bathroom. As they grew and the weather improved, they needed to have the experience of going outside – but obviously, they couldn’t stay out ALL night. So we faithfully trotted them up and downstairs every morning and evening, until finally, they were tough enough to go out into the big wide world all the time.
After one of the weirdest spring/summer periods ever experienced, with blistering heat early on, followed by one of the wettest Junes on record, my courgettes are finally starting to bear fruit. They aren’t massive but they are extremely tasty and the sight of the bright yellow flowers are guaranteed to bring a ray of sunshine into even the dankest day.
I have waxed lyrical before about the glory that is a plate of stuffed courgette flowers. But this dingy weather has meant that I’ve just not had enough all in one go to make that possible. So I started looking through recipes.
Some recipes are like a comfy pair of shoes – you slip into them for comfort without a second thought. Then there are the ones that you get out like a pair of super high-heels, just for special occasions. They look fantastic at a party, but you’re SO glad when you can kick them off at the end of the evening. There are the recipes your partner likes to see wheeled out all the time, but you absolutely hate .. and vice versa. There are the uber fashionable ones, and those ones you loved way back when … but now ?… Well, you can’t even imagine thinking it was a thing.
And then there are those other ones, the ones a friend gave you but somehow you just lost track of over time. But the memory… well the memory never leaves you. I’ve been rummaging through my books and clippings and the web for recipes for my teeny courgettes and came across a recipe just like that.
Back in that summer of my first courgettes, we went visiting a friend’s house. His mother, Kyria Sotiroula, had been cooking, and as we left she pressed into our hands a big jar of food. To be honest, it didn’t have much plate-appeal. It looked a bit of a mess – tomatoey stewed green leaves, pieces of feta, and bits of soft courgettes. But the taste … the taste was truly incredible, and we demolished the whole lot pretty promptly. I didn’t speak Greek at the time, so I had no idea what we were eating, but the memory stayed with me.
Some 30 years later, visiting the remote mountain village of Dimitsana in the Peloponnese, the local taverna owner suggested that we tried the regional specialty, kolokithokorfádes (courgette tops) – and there it was again, that messy, tasty plate of braised courgette parts, just the way Kyria Sotiroula had made it.
Truly this is a dish that showcases every single element of the courgette – the flowers, the fruits, and especially the leaves. Obviously you really need to use the most tender, young, bright green leaves. You need skill and patience to trim them, as, even the baby leaves are very fibrous. The ones on my plants are way too big, tough, and blemished to consider cooking, so I substituted them with fresh spinach. But the gorgeous sunny flowers and the little baby courgettes were perfect.
This dish of braised courgette tops is local to the Peloponnese and it really should be better known. If you can’t get hold of the flowers, it’s probably still worth having a go with some greens and courgettes – it’s easy and extremely tasty. Serve with plenty of bread to mop up the juices.
Kolokithokorfádes - 'Eat-It-All' Braised Courgettes
- A sautée pan or low, wide pan. (See 'Practicalities, Hints and Cheats')
- 1 kg fresh spinach (or well-trimmed, very young courgette leaves)
- 500 gm baby courgettes, with their flowers if possible
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 4 tbsp chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp chopped dill and/or fennel fronds
- 50 gm butter For vegans, substitute this with 50ml olive oil
- 100 ml olive oil
- 4 tomatoes, grated Grating tomatoes on a coarse grater is very common in Greek cookery. It gives you a fine dice of the flesh without seeds or too much liquid.
- A little water
- 100 ml milk (optional - if you don't use milk, more water will be needed.)
- salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 150 gm Feta, crumbled (optional)
- Wash and prepare the courgettes and/or the spinach.
- In a low, wide pan (see 'Practicalities, Hints and Cheats') heat the oil and butter. If you're doing the vegan version, just the oil.
- Add the chopped onion and cook on a low heat until it is soft.
- Now add the grated tomato and increase the heat for a minute, just so a sauce starts to form. Add a few tablespoons of water and reduce the heat.
- Add the spinach and the courgettes and courgette tops, if you have them. Bring to a steady simmer and then pop the lid on the pan. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Once the leaves and courgettes have started to cook, add the milk and the chopped parsley and dill. Reduce the heat and cook for a further 10-15 minutes on a low heat, making sure that the mix doesn't start to catch on the bottom of the pan. Gentle but regular stirring !! A little water may be required.
- Once everything is tender and cooked, remove from the heat. Sprinkle with some crumbled feta (optional) and serve.
There are so many fantastic recipes for courgettes – try these for some more ideas!