Cooking without an oven, the southern Italian way

The first place I saw the sun being used as a furnace was Greece on a trip with my mother. When we returned from lunch to our rented cold white-washed room in someone’s cold white-covered house on a little white-washed island–the woman of that house had picked the morning’s ripe figs and was laying them on the roof. There they dried up in the sun all afternoon, while her husband sat in the shade of the fig trees, mending his fishing nets after the morning run. Since then I’ve seen people use the sun to dry grapes, fish, mushrooms, herbs, shrimp, and lavender. Wherever there’s a cobalt blue window frame, there’s definitely a thick garland of vibrant red chile nailed to it. My mother-in-law Alda, who has since passed away, used to put large round bowls of tomato puree on the cracked bamboo furniture on her balcony in Santa Maria di Luca in southern Italy and let them bake all afternoon under the sweltering Pugliese sun, from Raju Ruby red from noon to dark leather ruby ​​at sunset.

There will appear a winding little market early in the morning–not so remarkable but powerful, and in many ways like a simple carnival of traveling–a little caravan of diesel trucks whose side gates open, whose awnings pop out, and from there to retail boxes of eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. There is always a fruit man. Salumi and cheese man. A few locals arrive straight from their fields and shove between trucks, pulling burlap from the bed of their little wagons to reveal it, nestled among jugs of gasoline and cubes of earthen crust, a few wonderful watermelons, some crooked pumpkins, a few potatoes and a crumpled paper grocery bag from Sunny squash blossoms they would like to sell for a few euros. And always the dry-goods guy, perched on a beach chair tucked under the tree by the bocce yard, his table filled with braided garlands of garlic, chickpeas, salt capers, lentils, oregano, sun-dried eggplant, and zucchini.

The mint will bloom and release a very strong aromatic scent.

The sun-dried zucchini in this recipe is oven-dried because I live in New York City, not Puglia. And life here and cooking here have always been, throughout my career, exercises in loyal approximation. You slice and salt the zucchini, blot the water out with a paper towel, and then you can leave them overnight in the oven to dry in the warmth of a pilot lamp if you have a gas oven like me, or you can give them about an hour in a 200 degree oven. I fry in olive oil, which almost no professional chef would recommend – it’s expensive, the smoke point is very low, the flavor is so strong – but the same mother-in-law who dried tomato paste on the patio furniture on her balcony also had her own olive groves, and the oil came to The house is not in bottles or jugs but in tanks.

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