|Cucuzza and vegetables in a Giovanni DeSimone ceramic dish|
In my region of Sicily, a popular preparation for cucuzza squash is known as “ghiotta di cucuzza” which I loosely translate as a kind of cucuzza stew. This mouth-watering dish is easy to make, filling, economical and, according to all the grandmothers of Sicily, quite good for you. Cucuzza squash (also known as Zucchino Rampicante) is available now in many parts of the United States, but if you have a green thumb and lots of space you may want to try your hand at growing it. If growing your own, it is quite tempting to allow the squash to get large before harvesting, as it can reach staggering proportions sometimes larger than a baseball bat. For cooking purposes, however, it is best to harvest it while it is still somewhat small and tender, before it gets too large and goes to seed.Start by taking a whole cucuzza squash, about 1½ pounds; wash, peel and quarter it and then chop it into large chunks and place it in cold water while you continue preparations. (If you do not have cucuzza, you can substitute zucchini or opi squash.) If your cucuzza is harvested while it is still young, you will not have to worry about seeds. If your cucuzza has gown large on the stalk, you may want to half it first and scrape the seeds before proceeding.
You will need a large red onion halved and sliced coarsely; one or two raw medium tomatoes of any variety chopped coarsely; one or two large baking potatoes peeled, quartered and chopped into large chunks and placed in cold water while continuing preparations; about ⅓ cup olive oil, along with a generous handful of freshly picked basil, salt and a small, whole Italian red chili pepper, called peperoncino to be removed later.In a wide heavy-bottom pot, heat the olive oil and begin to sauté the onions to release their flavor. When they are limp and translucent but not browned, add the potatoes, cucuzza, tomatoes, peperoncino; stir well and continue sautéing. Cover the pot and allow it to simmer at low to medium heat, stirring often. The cucuzza will release water and the consistency will become that of a dense soup. Should it become a bit dry, just a half glass or so of water. Continue cooking for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the cucuzza and potatoes are tender to the fork. Remove the peperoncino and adjust the salt. Turn off the heat, and add the fresh whole basil leaves. I always reserve some whole basil leaves with which to garnish the bowls. This dish is eaten with crusty country-style bread and we do not add cheese to it.
My mother, who like her mother is very health conscious in her cooking, always makes this dish “in bianco,” an Italian phrase indicating that all the ingredients have been added raw, without first sautéing. The results are slightly different and I personally enjoy both versions. When cooking this dish “in bianco,” mix all the ingredients together in a pot with a small amount of water and allow to cook until tender. I like to add the olive oil raw toward the end of cooking for added flavor and health benefits. My mother also adds home-made pasta, which she cuts in short, irregular shapes and adds to the soup toward the end of cooking. My favorite pasta for this dish is a cut of pasta known as “strozzapreti” or “priest strangler”! I suggest that if you are using freshly made pasta, add it directly to the soup a few minutes before cooking is complete, as it requires very little cooking time. If using dried pasta, cook it separately, drain and mix together with the cucuzza when it has finished cooking, stir and serve.
Buon apetito and ciao a presto!