bittman's kitchen

A Rustic Zucchini Dish to Remind You of the Italian Childhood You Wish You Had

Photo: Melissa Hom

Vito, an electrician who was born in Sicily, was over here the other day, and we got to talking.

“My mother passed about ten years ago, and last year I went back to Sicily and visited the family who stayed,” he said. “I swear they cooked exactly the same food she did.”

That was reassuring. When I asked, “Like what?” and reached for my phone to take notes, he told me precisely one dish and then proceeded to go on about how he wished he cooked, but he never had time. You know the drill, or at least I do. I gave him a copy of How to Cook Everything: The Basics and forgot about it.

Until noon on a recent day, when I wanted lunch. I am still vegan before 6 — much as I wish I could enjoy the convenience of a stupid ham on rye now and then — so it usually takes a little thought. Fortunately, I was home, and fortunately, there was a ton of food around, and after considering a couple of options I remembered Vito’s mother’s dish.

“It was the simplest little thing,” he’d said. “They took these long white zucchini they have and boiled them with potato, then served them with olive oil. That’s it. And it just blew my mind.”

I don’t have the memories he has, but it sounded pretty good. And I have these pretty purple-pink potatoes and some decent zucchini, so I started the potatoes in salted water, added the zucchini about ten minutes later — along with some onion for good measure — and, when everything was tender, mashed it just a bit and served it with my best olive oil and salt. A bit of liquid leeched out of the zucchini while I was eating and mixed with the oil, and that little broth at the bottom was so delicious, I can still taste it.

I’m going to make it for Vito the next time he’s over and see if it’s even close to the real thing. How far off could it be?

Poached Potato and Zucchini
Makes: 2 servings
Time: 20 minutes

2 or 3 waxy potatoes, about ½ pound, scrubbed and cut into chunks
2 medium zucchini, about ½ pound, washed and cut into chunks
1 small onion, peeled and sliced
Olive oil, the best you can lay your hands on
Salt and black pepper

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it. Meanwhile, prepare the potato and add it to the water. Simmer until the potato is half-cooked, about 10 minutes. (A thin-bladed knife will penetrate the potato easily but not pass through it.)

2. Add the zucchini and continue to cook. When the potato and zucchini are nearly tender, add the onion. Cook until all three vegetables are tender, then drain, put in a bowl, douse with olive oil and pepper, and mash a little bit. Taste for salt and serve.

My default these days is a bell pepper, a tomato, a cucumber, and … something. Some olives, a piece of melon, whatever. All sprinkled with olive oil. It’s not bad. Some bites of cucumber and tomato together, especially, are heaven. Actually, so are some bites of pepper and oil. Simple things.
Recipe: Rustic Zucchini, Italian-Style