Forget the ratatouille: Mark Hix cooks with courgettes

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Courgettes are in season again – and all sorts of shapes and sizes are appearing in the shops. Our chef has inspired ideas about how to cook them.

Courgettes seem to be disliked by a lot of people, but my theory is that it's because they are so often simply thrown into a boring ratatouille – and there are so many more delicious ways to prepare and eat them. Badly cooked and unseasoned courgettes can be pretty tasteless, so, as with most vegetables, you need to take a bit of care when it comes to cooking them.

The marrow and gourd family naturally contains a lot of water, so either grilling or roasting them on a high heat tends to produce the best results (unlike carrots or swedes, where you can just boil them and get away with it).

Because of their delicate and relatively neutral flavour, courgettes go very well with all sorts of stronger flavourings, from acidic capers to sweet tomatoes, and they are also great mixed into a mezze-type starter with baked or grilled aubergines and onions, and mediterranean herbs such as marjoram and oregano.

Antipasti of courgettes

Serves 4-6

When courgettes are in season and there are all sorts of different shapes, colours and sizes available, including the flowers, it's a nice idea to make good use of all of them in the form of an antipasti dish such as this one.

You can do a mixture of simple grilled, roasted and steamed; or you could chop them and make a kind of vegetable stew; below are some suggestions.

A friend of mine recently gave me some delicious wild pignuts from down in Dorset – they grow under the ground and their bush-like leaves look rather similar to those of parsley. They are so-called because of their popularity with pigs. I'm not suggesting you go foraging for pignuts; if you can't get hold of them, just use lightly toasted hazelnuts instead.

2 large yellow courgettes, cut into chunky slices on the angle
2 large green courgettes, cut into 5-6 lengths, then cut lengthways into half-cm thick slices
4-6 baby courgettes
2 round courgettes, thinly sliced
2tbsp cider vinegar
5-6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
20 or so pignuts or hazelnuts, lightly toasted
A few courgette flowers
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and cook the chunks of yellow courgette on a medium heat for 5-6 minutes, turning them as they are cooking. You can finish them in the oven if you wish, then transfer to a plate.

Heat a ribbed griddle, lightly oil it and grill the slices of green courgette for a couple of minutes on each side, seasoning as they are cooking, until tender.

Transfer to the plate with the roasted courgettes. Simmer the baby courgettes in boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes, drain and put to one side. Mix the vinegar and olive oil with the thinly-sliced round courgettes, season and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.

To serve, arrange all of the courgettes on a serving dish, spoon over the marinade and lightly season. Scatterover the nuts and tear the courgette flowers over.

Deep-fried courgette flowers with oxheart tomatoes and shaved courgettes

Serves 4

If you are a gardener and grow your own courgettes or squashes you may not make use of the flowers, instead just letting them die and rot on the plant. What you should do, however, is harvest them when the sun is up in the morning and they are fully opened, and simply fry them in this delicious and simple batter.

The squash and pumpkin family produce lovely flowers that can be harvested continually for a couple of months during the spring and summer; the male flowers are the best ones to pick, as they grow directly from the stem without the courgette attached, so there is no danger of limiting your crop supply.

4 large courgette flowers
120g gluten-free self-raising flour (try Dove's Farm) plus extra for dusting
200ml ice-cold water
20-30g finely grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
1 large oxheart or beef tomato, cut into 1cm-thick slices (keep the ends and chop them for the dressing)
2 small courgettes
2tsp white wine vinegar
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil

To make the batter, slowly whisk the water with the flour in a bowl until you have a smooth consistency. Add the salt and pepper and the Parmesan and give it a final whisk.

Trim the courgettes and shave them lengthways into ribbons with a peeler. Mix the ribbons in a bowl with the vinegar and oil and chopped tomato trimmings and season to taste.

Leave for about 10 minutes to marinate. Meanwhile, heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (make sure it is no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute, it's ready.

Dip the courgette flowers into flour first and then shake off the excess before dipping into the batter.

Cook them 3 or 4 at a time for a couple of minutes until they are crisp and a light golden colour.

Remove the courgette flowers from the oil with a slotted spoon and put on a plate with some kitchen paper on it and lightly season with salt.

Place the slices of tomato in the centre of your serving plates, then spoon the marinade with the courgette ribbons and chopped tomatoes on top and around; finally, place the courgette flower on top.

Pasta with courgettes and chilli

Serves 4

I rarely keep long-cooking pasta in my cupboard any more as there are several, very good, quick-cooking pastas on the market now – try Cipriani, Filotea from Waitrose and Di Aldo. With high-end quick-cooking pastas like these, it's dead simple to knock up a quick and tasty meal.

4 servings of quality quick-cooking pasta
2 large courgettes
2tsp dried chilli flakes
100-120ml olive oil
100g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan, to serve

Cut the courgettes into 4-5cm lengths then slice them lengthways as thinly as possible and shred them. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water according to the manufacturer's instructions, then drain in a colander, reserving a little cooking water.

While the pasta is cooking, melt half the butter and 50ml of the olive oil in a pan and gently cook the courgettes and chilli for 3-4 minutes until they are just tender. Toss them with the pasta, season and add the rest of the butter and olive oil and enough of the cooking water to form a coating sauce. Serve with grated Parmesan.

Courgette tart

Serves 4-6

This is a simple tart for a dinner-party starter; or you could slice it into fingers for cocktail snacks.

200g butter puff pastry rolled to about one-third of a cm
2 large courgettes
A little vegetable or corn oil for frying
3 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2tsp tomato purée
1tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
2tbsp freshly-grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the pastry into rectangles about 30cm x 8cm, lay them on a baking tray and prick all over with a fork. Bake for 6-7 minutes without colouring and put to one side. Cut the courgettes into 7cm lengths then cut them lengthways into slices of about one-third of a centimetre thick.

Heat a little vegetable oil in a non-stick or heavy frying pan and fry the courgettes for a minute on each side on a high heat until they begin to colour; then transfer to a plate. Heat the olive oil in the same pan and fry the tomatoes for a minute, season, add the tomato purée and coarsely blend them in a food processor.

To serve, spread the tomato mixture on to the pastry, arrange the courgettes on top by overlapping them. Season, mix the breadcrumbs and Parmesan together and scatter on top of the courgettes. Bake for 8-10 minutes, remove from the oven and serve whole on a board and cut it at the table; or you could cut into portions and serve on warm serving plates.

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