In cafés and simple restaurants across the UK, courgettes are frequently (mis)used to make a poor excuse of a ratatouille or the sort of unappetizing vegetable ‘lasagne’ only ever eaten by desperate vegetarians with no other menu choice. Courgettes (known as zucchini to Italians and Americans) are in fact beautifully tender vegetables with a fresh, delicate flavour.
The origin of the courgette is not entirely clear, partly because common usage of the word courgette often relates to plants that transcend botanical classifications. It was not widely eaten in Europe before the twentieth century and some sources claim that it was developed from the squash, first brought to Europe from the Americas during Christopher Columbus’ crusades. Squash have been cultivated in Central America for more than five thousand years and courgettes play a prominent role in Mexican cuisine today.
A member of the cucurbit family, courgettes are related to watermelons, gherkins and cucumbers. Courgettes are usually marrows harvested at a young age, although the mature fruit of certain varieties of squash may also be sold as courgettes.
Courgettes have a high water content and are low in calories. They are a source of folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C.
Smaller, younger courgettes have more flavour. Look for firm, heavy-feeling courgettes with unblemished bright and glossy skins.
Wash well and trim both ends. The courgette is a versatile ingredient and can be baked, fried, steamed or stewed according to recipe.
Courgette flowers can often be found on the menus of French or Italian restaurants. Smaller flowers are given a tempura treatment (fried in a light batter); larger flowers are typically stuffed with tomatoes and herbs or goat’s cheese and are delicious.