The Final Courgette Leaves
One of the coolest things about my allotment here in North London is its particularly urban setting. Our fence faces a rather busy residential street with a church and mosque opposite and a very active police station - this is Tottenham - just a stone’s throw away. When I’m working the plot, it seems there’s something about the act of gardening which puts people who might never otherwise talk to me at ease with accosting me. The allotment is a common ground, as it were - a leveller.
So, one of the best discoveries to come out of this gardening year came from a man who drove up to the lottie in late August. As I was inspecting my squashes, he got out of his car, breathless, and said, with a heavy accent, “I’ve been coming past for days hoping to find someone here!” I thought maybe he’d lost his pet or something. “Please,” he begged, “can I have some of your flowers?”
“Which ones?” I asked.
“Those,” he said, pointing to the squashes.
“Oh yes,” I said, “they are good!”
“And please,” he said, “the leaves as well, and stems.”
I’d never tried the leaves, so I asked him what he does with them. “Just chop them,” he said, “fry onion in oil, add the leaves and water - that’s it. Soup! Or,” he continued, “just fry with garlic and add dried chilli. The flowers - you can stuff them with meat and steam them, or make tempura. That’s the best way.” He also advised me that my green tomatoes would make a good pickle, salted and packed in oil with mustard seeds and chilli.
I filled a bag with smallish pumpkin and courgette leaves which are very prickly, but he assures me they lose their prickles in the cooking, and a few flowers, some with courgettes attached. He offered me money but of course I refused. He’s from Mauritius, and pointed to his house which faces the allotment, saying he’s rather crippled and doesn’t get out much. I told him I’d drop off some more at his doorstep in a few days, which I did, and he’s been back to visit since.
So, we’ve been feasting on pumpkin and courgette leaves ever since, when the plants throw out tender young shoots. I try not to decimate the plant obviously, so it’s been a bi- or tri-weekly treat. The prickles do indeed subside in the cooking, but you are left with a wonderful, lightly abrasive “mouth-feel” (a word I don’t like but that’s the best way to describe it!), and an inimitable big, sweet, earthy flavour.
Yesterday the forecast was for our first frost, so it was time to pull up the last of the plants and save what leaves and baby courgettes I could.
This was lunch: Farewell Courgette (Zucchini) Feast. I fried the shredded leaves and remaining flowers and infant fruits in olive oil with a pinch of salt, and added some chopped garlic at the end when they had shrunken and wilted. Meanwhile I boiled some ricotta and spinach tortellini and drained, added a little more oil to the frying pan and added the tortellini. I stir-fried them together with the leaves until the pasta was lightly golden. We ate it hot with Parmesan shavings. It was a legendary meal.