A wonderful thing about French cuisine is its flights of fancy. With a few, simple “tours de main” or tricks, the French chef transforms one thing into another, always managing to keep the integrity of the original.
Let’s take some examples.
- The lemon. Leave it to the French pâtissier to take a lemon and turn it into a tart that is almost more lemon-y than the original.
- The apple – oh, ho ho! The list of magical transformations is legion but leave it to a patissiere in the Loire Valley to forget an ingredient think quickly, and come up with the magical Tarte Tatin, a caramelized apple wonder and the culinary dessert Marseillaise of France.
- The fig – in France, this marvelously seductive wonder is both fruit and vegetable, as cozy in a tart encrusted with sugar as it is seasoned with pepper and herbs and set alongside a big, fat, juicy steak.
- The turnip –give this most humble of vegetables to to a French chef and she or he will poach, braise, sauté or otherwise modify it into one of the best things you ever put in your mouth, as you say “THIS is a turnip?”
Zucchini Into Flower
The list could go on but I won’t belabor it. I will, though, bring your attention to the flower made with zucchini slices that is featured in our video today, which is a perfect example of the French “tour de main”. After all, the zucchini is as humble as the turnip yet here, it’s dressed up for a delicious party.
The zucchini was a newcomer to the French vegetable lexicon at the turn of the 19th century when, it is said, the French coopted it from the Italians. Here is the story: squash arrived in Europe with Christopher Columbus in the 14th century and somehow squash seeds made it to Italy sometime later. The seeds were dropped into the soil of a farm there and the hungry farmer couldn’t wait for the squash to mature into their hard-skinned selves so he picked one that wasn’t fully ripe and tasted it. He found it SO delicious that from then on, he harvested the squash young and tender, reveling in their hazelnut-flavored flesh. He baptized these tender young things “zucchine”.
One thing led to another, and the zucchini came to France where chauvinism transformed it into “courgette,” in reference to baby “courge,” or squash.
International Zucchini Love
So the Portuguese had the sense to bring the seeds to Europe, the Italians had the smarts to eat this squash young, the French claimed it as their own. Yet the true glory for its existence must go to MesoAmerica, that vast birthplace of squash, each of which comes from the family curcubitacae.
First Course or Side Dish
We can thank them all, for the zucchini is an important part of the summer to fall repertoire. I encourage you to make this lovely dish and either serve it as a first course, or an accompaniment.
ZUCCHINI FLOWERS WITH MINT - FLEURS DE COURGETTE A LA MENTHE
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-1/2 pounds (750g) zucchini that measure about 1-1/2 inches (4cm) in diameter rinsed, trimmed on either end, cut into 1/4th (.6cm) slices
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 ounce(15g) Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated to give 1/4 cup
- Freshly ground black pepper – optional
- 4 peppermint leaves
- Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).
- Brush two metal baking sheets with half the amount of olive oil. Arrange the zucchini slices into rosettes that are about 4-inches (10cm) in diameter, overlapping them so there is no space showing, and so the center is filled in. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and repeat twice, to make three layers.
- Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the zucchini rosettes and sprinkle them with salt.
- Bake in the center of the oven until the zucchini is tender and browning at the edges, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each rosette evenly with a thin layer of cheese, and return to the oven until the cheese is melted and lightly golden, 5 to 8 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, season them with pepper if desired, and carefully transfer the zucchini gratins to warmed plates. The best way to do this is to use a large metal spatula which you slide quickly, with one sharp movement, under the gratin, then slide it quickly off the spatula onto the plate. Scissor cut the mint leaves and strew them over the gratins. Serve immediately.