Wild mint grows in the cracks between the steps just behind our house in Gela. So does another vigorous weed that smells a little like cat pee. And then there are the actual cats, also wild, which slink up and down the steps looking both terrifying and terrified. Neither, though, can quite snuff out the unmistakeable scent of the mint – a cool menthol breath mixed with something musty. Defiant clusters cling to neglected steps that lead down to a busy road in the middle of this industrial city in southern Sicily. Further down the road, past the old prison, you catch the scent again near a swathe of fichi d’India, or prickly pears, which seem to grow out of a wall, the stems like succulent paddles, each one bejewelled with a dozen coral fruits. There is fleshy purslane and a variety of milk thistle at the edges of the pavement too, resilient tufts seeming to suggest that you can build a city on agricultural land, but nature will burst forth in the cracks. Nothing is for picking, however – by me at least. The prickly pears because the spikes are dastardly and fly at you, then remain impaled in the soft parts of your hand as hair-thin splinters for days; the mint, purslane and chicory because, well, the cats.
I have enjoyed cooking with tame mint bought in bunches or cellophane-covered packets this past month in Sicily – it has made a nice change from all the basil. Not that I have anything against basil. It is just that when it comes into season in Rome and market vendors start stuffing it in the top of your bag like a shopping favour, it becomes ubiquitous – sauces, salads, stewed and stuffed summer vegetables, all in the key of basil. There is basil in Sicily too – masses of it. But whereas in Rome mint seems quiet in comparison, in Sicily it sings from stalls and shelves and the cracks in the pavement.
It was a recipe in a new favourite book that prompted me to get the first bunch. The book is a slim, softback edition of Sicilian recipes and flavours for everyday and feast days; a practical, technicolour celebration of pasta, almonds, aubergines, citrus, pomegranates, oily fish, breadcrumbs – and mint, which Sicilians use effectively and beguilingly with vegetables, meat, fish and fruit. I am not sure I have ever bookmarked so many recipes in a single book, including this one for spaghetti con le zucchine fritte – spaghetti with fried courgettes, pecorino and mint.
Like so many Sicilian recipes, this one involves frying in oil – in this case olive oil; a source of pleasure and rich, unparalleled flavour. You need enough olive oil that the courgette rounds fry at a sort of shimmy, for which you can get away with just over 1cm (which is why you don’t want a huge frying pan). Be careful the oil doesn’t get too hot by keeping the flame modest and pulling the pan from the heat for a few seconds, if necessary. Once the rounds are gently blistered and pale gold, you lift them from the oil, blot on kitchen paper, salt lightly (and eat three straight away). Frying brings out the savoury sweetness of courgettes most beautifully. The leftover oil is for tossing through the spaghetti – you decide how much to use. Beyond frying, you only need to grate the cheese and slap or rip the mint before tossing both with the spaghetti, then finishing with the courgettes. The heat of the pasta both melts the cheese and awakens the persistent scent of the mint, which is as lovely as the combined taste of all five ingredients.
I knew this would become a trusted favourite almost before I made it. Not least because it is another pasta sauce/condiment that comes together while the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks – one to be filed in the mental cookbook along with pasta with melted butter and tinned anchovies, pasta with lemon and parmesan, pasta with oil, garlic and chilli, pasta with bursting cherry tomatoes – all recipe answers to the question: “What shall we eat tonight, and in 15 minutes?” Dishes that, when followed by a salad, piece of cheese and accompanied by a bottle of wine, can feel like an everyday feast.
Spaghetti with courgettes, pecorino and mint
Quantities given are just guidelines: add more/less garlic/oil/cheese/mint according to taste.
2 large courgettes
1-2 garlic cloves
120-200ml extra virgin olive oil
100g pecorino, parmesan or hard, salted ricotta, grated
Salt and black pepper
A sprig of fresh mint, leaves torn into little bits
1 Wash and slice the courgettes into 2-3mm thick rounds. Peel the garlic. For a milder flavour, crush it with the back of a knife so it splits, but remains whole. For a stronger flavour, slice. Bring a large pan of water to the boil in preparation for the spaghetti.
2 Fry the garlic gently in the olive oil over a medium heat until fragrant, then use a slotted spoon to scoop it out – it will burn otherwise and turn bitter.
3 Working in batches, fry the courgette discs on both sides until they have become lightly blistered and golden, then use a slotted spoon to lift them on to kitchen towel to blot. Sprinkle lightly with salt and keep the remaining oil in the pan.
4 Once the water is boiling, add salt, then the spaghetti and cook until al dente. Either drain the spaghetti – keeping some cooking water – or use tongs to lift it directly into the frying pan and toss in the leftover courgette oil. Tip the glistening spaghetti into a warm dish or bowl, add half the cheese, a grind of black pepper and most of the ripped mint and toss. Arrange the courgettes on top and finish with the rest of the cheese and mint.