Sweet and sour : Zucchini in agrodolce

The dog has pancreatitis. The beaches in Chicago are still closed. I sprained my toe three weeks ago and still can’t run on it. The coronavirus continues, leaving in its wake remnants of hope and optimistic spirits. The end is nowhere in sight and despair is never farther than a few breaths away.

This week is also the first time since the shut-down in late March that I have a full client roster. This morning I sat down to work on a writing project that has eluded me, and the writing flowed out of me. Later, I got a text from a close friend, who’s a prolific writer and poet, saying that he just had his first haiku published.

This is life. We flow in between these two polarities, swinging from sweet to sour and back again. The work is not to get stuck on either pole, to loosen the tension enough to swing with some modicum of ease in between the two extremes, careful not to get too attached to outcomes, sweet, sour or otherwise.

*

I made zucchini in agrodolce a couple weeks ago and was reminded just how much I love zucchini. Now is peak zucchini time and a good time to make good use of recipes that showcase it. Some of my favorite ways to cooking zucchini: layered in a tian and baked, then pressed overnight or charred on the grill and served over a schmear of romesco. This week I cut a pile of zucchini into fat wedges, fried it in olive oil as described below, and served it over a pool of grated tomato, my favorite summer condiment, with a sprinkle of crispy chickpeas on top. It is a proper summer meal to eat while watching the sun set and reflecting on the sweetness and sourness visited upon you over the course of a day, or a lifetime.

In agrodolce means served in a sweet-and-sour marinade. In Italy, this preparation is often referred to as in scapece, similar to the Spanish escabeche and the Catalan escabetx. All of these words can be traced back to mid-sixth century Persia and Khosrau I Anushirvan, the king of the Sassanid Persian empire. Khosrau’s favorite dish was sikbāj, a sweet and sour beef stew, and since Persia was the center of the global economy at the time, the dish and its preparation quickly spread. In The Language of Food, Dan Jurafsky traces fish and chips, tempura, aspic, pescado fritto, and scapece back to sikbāj: “I’d like to think that the lesson here is that we are all immigrants, that no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions.”

Source: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

A couple cooking notes: Take care when frying the zucchini. Choose a high-sided rondeau that will inhibit the oil from splashing and splattered, making a mess of your stove and scorching the sensitive skin on the tops of your hands and forearms.

Pay attention to the thickness of your zucchini ribbons. Because zucchini is mostly water, it will shrink considerably when fried. Using a mandolin will help ensure even thickness. You’re looking for ¼-inch thickness.

Don’t use a fancy finishing oil for frying. I use Costco’s organic olive oil for things like frying that require a lot of oil. It’s an economical, quality option. Once you’re done frying, let the oil cool completely, then strain it into a clean glass jar and reserve it for another frying job. As long as there aren’t any food particles in the oil, it will keep at room temperature for several months. I’ll reuse this oil two or three times before disposing of it.

Zucchini in agrodolce

  • Servings: 2-4
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print
Adapted from Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton

• 3 pounds zucchini, sliced into ¼-inch ribbons
• Kosher salt
• Olive oil for frying
• Mint leaves
• 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced on the mandolin

Marinade:
• 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
• 3T sugar
• Pinch chili flake
• 1T salt

Salt the zucchini: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees (with convection, if you can). Lay the ribbons in a single layer on two baking trays with racks. Salt the slices liberally and set to dry in the oven for about two hours.
Meanwhile, in a high-sided, heavy bottomed pot, pour enough olive oil to cover two inches from the bottom of the pot. I consider that up to my second knuckle on my pointer finger. In a small pot, make the marinade by adding the vinegar, sugar, chili flake and a pinch of salt and bringing it to a boil. Stir well to ensure the sugar is dissolved and set aside.

Once the zucchini looks sufficiently dry, remove from the oven and set the pot with the frying oil over medium-high heat. Have a medium-sized stainless-steel bowl ready. Once the oil starts to ripple slightly, add 10 or 12 ribbons. Using a chef’s tweezers or a fork, turn the ribbons as they fry to ensure even browning. Once they have shriveled and look evenly browned around the edges, remove from oil, shake most of the oil off, then add to the bowl. Continue frying the rest of the zucchini.

Sprinkle the marinade over the warm zucchini along with the thin slices of garlic and some torn mint leaves. The mint will bloom once it hits the warm zucchini, releasing an intoxicating odor throughout the kitchen. Let this dish marinate at room temp for at least an hour before serving.

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