The first place I saw the sun used as an oven was Greece, on a trip with my mom. When we came back from lunch to our rented whitewashed cool room in someone’s whitewashed cool house on a small whitewashed island — the woman of that house had picked her ripe, jammy figs in the morning and was laying them out on the roof. There they dried in the sun all afternoon, while her husband sat in the shade of the fig trees and mended his fishing nets after the morning’s haul. I’ve since seen people use the sun to dry grapes, fish, mushrooms, herbs, shrimp and lavender. Wherever there is a cobalt blue window frame, there is surely a bushy wreath of vibrant red chiles nailed to it. My mother-in-law Alda, who has since died, used to set large round platters of her tomato purée out on the splintering wicker furniture on her terrace in Santa Maria di Leuca in the south of Italy and let it bake all afternoon under the intense Pugliese sun, from ragù red at noon to dark, leathery ruby by sundown.
A straggly little market would pop up there in the early mornings — not picturesque but sturdy, and resembling in many ways a simple traveling carnival — a small caravan of diesel trucks whose side gates roll up, whose awnings pop out, and from there they retail their crates of eggplant and zucchini and tomatoes. There’s always a fruit man. A salumi-and-cheese guy. A few locals arrive directly from their fields and tuck in between the trucks, pulling back the burlap from the bed of their tiny scooter-wagons to reveal, nestled among the milk jugs of gasoline and the dirt-crusted rakes, a few gorgeous melons, some crooked squash, a few potatoes and a wrinkled paper grocery bag of sunny squash blossoms they wish to sell for a few euros. And there is always the dry-goods guy, sitting in a folded beach chair under the tree by the bocce court, his table loaded with braided garlands of garlic, chickpeas, salted capers, lentils, oregano, sun-dried eggplant and zucchini.
The mint will bloom and release its fragrance, which is downright swoony.
The sun-dried zucchini in this recipe is dried in the oven because I live in New York City, not in Puglia. And life here and cooking here have always been, my whole career, exercises in faithful approximation. You slice and salt the zucchini, blotting with a paper towel the water that is drawn out, and then you can leave them overnight in an oven to dry by the warmth of the pilot light if you have a gas oven as I do, or you can give them about an hour in a 200-degree oven. I fry in olive oil, which virtually no professional chef recommends — it’s expensive, the smoke point is too low, the flavor is too strong — but that same mother-in-law who dried her tomato paste on the patio furniture on her terrace also had her own olive groves, and the oil came to the house not in bottles or jugs but in cisterns.