Becoming English in the Garden: Or, What to Do with a Courgette

It was because of my daughter and her six-year-old sense of belonging that I succumbed to this cultural pressure to cultivate. I agreed to begin with the one thing she’d been begging for: courgettes, or zucchini as we used to say in America.
Publish date:
September 4, 2014
xoFood, gardening

I have never been able to grow anything. I’ve abandoned tansy and thyme in Missouri and escaped the twiggy clutches of a windowsill sage plant in Pittsburgh. I shunned everything green in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Berlin. Then, just to avoid mowing it, I tore up a yard of grass in North Carolina to make way for a garden, only to have the heirloom tomatoes wither on the vine, the basil to scorch, and the mint to rust away. Every year. For ten years.

But then I moved to England. Here gardening is the national pastime (rivaled only by saying “sorry” and betting on anything that moves). On television gardener gal pals Rosemary and Thyme used to find dead bodies in the rose bushes and solve murder mysteries between their weeding and watering. On the radio, Gardeners’ Question Time presents a weekly panel of horticultural experts to answer questions about the minutiae of seeds and soil. And on the first sunny day in spring, the car parks of the nation’s garden centers are chock-a-block with natives who have the green thumb gene planted in their national DNA. These oases cater to every grower’s need with expert advice huts, grocery stores, and cafes where you can sit and ponder –- over tea and scones or a cheese toastie –- if beetroot really is the answer.

The thing about having children in a new culture is that they force you to belong. You may have decades of habituated practice shaking hands instead of kissing on both cheeks or holding a fork in your right instead of your left hand, but children just adapt and get on with all the school uniforms, toffee apples, cricket – and gardening.

So it was because of my daughter and her six-year-old sense of belonging that I succumbed to this cultural pressure to cultivate. I agreed to begin with the one thing she’d been begging for: courgettes, or zucchini as we used to say in America. Why the US went with the Italian and the UK with the French is as much an international complexity as why a small child would plead for her own personal squash harvest.

When we decided to give up our house and cars and leave our homeland for what is likely to be forever, we promised our child the sea. “We’ll only be half an hour from the beach,” we repeatedly soothed when the packing and planning got to be too much. When we arrived in the vast agricultural county of Norfolk just before Christmas, she dashed into the freezing North Sea and laughed.

Ever since, as often as we can, we spend our days in the little coastal village of Winterton-on-Sea, where the Dunes Café a few paces from the shore serves tea and scones, sandwiches of local crab, and yellow courgette soup. To my now-English child, nothing says a day at the beach like a hot chocolate and a warm bowl of soup. So yellow courgettes it had to be for our first proper English garden.

Never mind that instead of a Downton Abbey or a Mansfield Park, all we had was a tiny patch of dirt where our (clearly unassimilated) American dogs had dug up the grass behind our house. But on this crowded island, where a “semi-detached” is the suburban norm and Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses the icon of every city, most people have only a small plot, a little corner of a little yard.

In fact the word “yard” is something reserved for stables, not houses. “Lawn” is strictly grass. But “garden” is any little bit of space, front or back, no matter what you’ve managed to nurture in it. The oddities of the local language remind us that if you have a little green, you must grow something, you must actually “garden” in your “garden.”

After listening intently to many episodes of Gardeners’ Question Time and re-visiting the advice hut at the garden center even more, we raked up our bare earth and quibbled over whether to be methodical like me or focused on completion like my husband. In the end, we both laid on several inches of compost and our daughter dug in her Jemmer F1 variety. (F1 means it’s a hybrid of two very different parents, much like the young grower herself.)

We surrounded the one and a half square meters with a fortress of willow spikes to deter, or at least dissuade, the dogs and we waited. That was Easter, just as the clocks were all set to spring forward. And thanks to that infamous English rain and glorious northern summer days that stretch from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., we grew something. A lot of something. Without even really trying.

Even as the courgettes make me feel English, they also remind me of my Midwestern roots and how my Grandma Dot fed us zucchini bread four meals a day. Because once you get one squash, you get a glut. There’s an oft repeated and just as often altered Garrision Keillor joke about how the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon lock their car doors in the month of August to keep neighbors from unloading their zucchini surplus onto the backseat. Harvest on Sunday and already by Wednesday you have many more begging for a good dish.

Some of our bounty I slice lengthwise and grill with melted butter and olive oil. The leftovers from dinner end up in an herby purée for crackers or are wrapped in a tortilla with watercress for lunch the next day. Others I sauté with olive oil and white wine and toss with pasta. And when there’s more, I dice it into a fish and potato chowder or mix it up in a spicy curry with coconut milk and spinach. But whether it’s a big-blue-sky day on the island or a classically books-and-tea rainy one, mostly we make soup. Lots and lots of courgette soup. Perhaps we’ll do all right at this becoming-English lark after all.

Yellow Courgette Soup

Like babies, courgettes come when they come and in a variety of sizes (and sometimes when you least expect it), so this is a very fluid recipe. The basic formula is as many courgettes as you like + enough broth just to cover. Super quick and easy. Serve with your own homemade croutons or a long slice of baguette with the best butter.

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • about 2 pounds yellow squash (2 large or 3 medium)
  • 2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 cups broth (vegetable or chicken)
  • an optional splash of milk or cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mince the garlic, coarsely chop the onion. Slice the courgettes in half lengthwise and then cut into ¼-inch slices. Mince the herbs, if using. (Parsley and thyme are perfectly subtle, but basil gives a whole different take on the dish.)

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the onion over medium heat until beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add the courgettes and herbs to the onions and garlic and give a quick stir to coat with butter. Add the broth and simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 15-20 minutes.

Purée the soup in batches in a food processor or with a stick blender in the pot. If you want to tone down the courgette taste and up the creaminess, stir in an optional splash of milk or cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.