In Sicilian this squash is called a cucuzza and in Italian I will call it a zucca lunga (long squash), which is what it is, a long serpent like squash. The tender leaves and tendrils of this plant are called tenerumiand I have written about these previously because both are typically loved by Sicilians and commonly used to make a refreshing summer soup (it could also be classified as a wet pasta dish).
The zucca tastes a little like zucchini (from the same family) and like all squashes it is a summer crop.
As a vegetable, this very long, pale green marrow is rather bland, but to a Sicilian it is referred to as delicate; it is the combinations of flavours that give this soup the unique, sweet, fresh taste – Sicilians say the soup is rinfrescante – refreshing and will reconstitute balance in the body.
Unless you live in Sicily you are unlikely to be able to purchase these. Do not despair if you do not know a nice Sicilian who grows this produce – you can use zucchini and a greater amount of basil to make a similar soup – it will not be the same, but very pleasant.
According to Giuseppe Coria in Profumi di Sicilia, the origins of the simple soup are probably from Ragusa and the southeastern part of Sicily. Here it was (and maybe in some households it still is) made only with boiled squash, its leaves, broken spaghetti, salt and pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
According to Coria, it is the people from Palermo who embellished the soup by adding garlic or onion, tomatoes and basil. And this is how I have always cooked it and eaten it in various homes in Sicily.
It is not surprising that this is a soup much appreciated by Inspector Montalbano, the principal character in Andrea Camilleri’s books that have also been made into a successful television series – the stories are set in this very region.
There are variations on how this soup is made: some add a generous sprinkling of pecorino cheese at the end (as in Palermo); others add red chillies during cooking. Diced potatoes are also common in some parts of Sicily.
The next day, we ate the leftovers as a cold soup; it was just as good….and as traditional. It is summer after all.
zucca lunga siciliana (mine was about 25 cms long)
1 large spring onion, sliced
2-3 tomatoes, roughly cut
3 cups of vegetable broth (I used a broth cube, optional) or water
fresh basil leaves, a good handful
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil,
1 cup of spaghetti (broken in small pieces)
Cut the zucca in half, get rid of the seeds and cube it.
Chop the tomatoes.
Sauté the onion in some olive oil for about 1 minute, add the zucca and continue to sauté for another 2-3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes.
Season with salt and pepper, add 2 cups of the stock, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the tenerumi, the rest of the stock and some of the basil; bring the contents to the boil.
Cook the pasta in the same pot; add the pasta and cook it until it is al dente.
Add more basil, a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil and serve.
I appreciate this soup’s fresh taste and only sprinkle only a few chilli flakes on top (or black pepper and I definitely do not use grated cheese; my Sicilian heritage is not from Palermo.
Fans of the television series Montalbano (was a big, hit in Italy and Australia) are likely to be enchanted with the beauty of the Sicilian landscape and the array of specialty Sicilian food featured in the series.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano is a police commissioner and he lives in the south-east of Sicily, near Marina di Ragusa where my relatives have their holiday houses. Montalbano’s beach house is in Punta Secca is a small fishing village, in the Santa Croce Camerina comune, in Ragusa province, Sicily.
Andrea Camilleri is the writer of the crime stories and the books abound with delicious Sicilian food references.
Montalbano is an extremely appealing character who loves to eat. He savours his food, relishing all that is prepared for him with appreciation and gratitude. He readily accepts invitations to the homes of others and has his favourite trattorie (small restaurants). Montalbano is a detective who uses food to cheer himself up, plan his next moves and to weigh up the evidence. In the evenings he anticipates what Adelina (his housekeeper and cook) has left for him to eat and he hates to be interrupted over his dinner, but the phone often rings. He often seems to be thinking of what he will eat next or what he has eaten and in the books, Camilleri describes almost every dish Montalbano eats. And every dish is traditionally Sicilian.
On my last trip to Sicily, I ate in a couple of trattorie in Palermo where Camilleri and his friend Leonardo Sciascia (Sicilian writer) have been frequent patrons. One of Camilleri’s favourite dishes must be pasta or rice with black ink sauce – there are references made in a number of the books in the Montalbano series. In Siracusa I ate ricotta ravioli with black ink sauce.
Camilleri lives and works in Rome but spent a great number of years in Sicily before he moved north. He was born in Porto Empedocle, which is not far from Ragusa, and although Camilleri has given the places in Sicily fictitious names, the locations are recognisable. For example the scenes in Montalbano’s beautiful house overlooking the sea in Marinella near the fictional town of Vigàta is really of Punta Secca in Porto Empedocle (see photo). Fiacca is Sciacca, Fela is Gela, and Montelusa is Agrigento. The police station is a building in Ragusa Ibla and all of these towns are close to Ragusa, where my relatives live. The trattorie and restaurants in these south-eastern part of Sicily where the series were shot, have capitalised on this – a traveller visiting this part of Sicily can always sit down to eat pasta (or rice – risu) cu niuru di sicci.
This is how I cook it.
pasta, 500 g (spaghetti, linguine or bucatini)
squid or cuttlefish, 600g, and 2-3 ink sacks
ripe tomatoes, 300g, peeled and chopped
tomato paste, 1 large tablespoon
salt (a little) and, chili flakes or freshly ground black pepper to taste
onion, 1 medium or/and garlic 2 cloves
white wine, 1 cup
parsley, 1 cup finely cut
grated pecorino or ricotta to serve (optional)
Clean the squid carefully and extract the ink sac (see pg…). Cut the squid into 1cm rings and set them aside. The tentacles can be used also.
For the salsa:
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil. Addthe tomatoes, chopped parsley, salt, white wine and tomato paste. Bring to a boil and evaporate until the salsa is thick.
Add the squid ink, red pepper flakes to the salsa and mix well.
Add the squid rings and cook over a medium-high heat until the squid is cooked to your liking (for me it is only a few minutes). If you prefer to cook the squid further (as the Italians do), add a little water, cover the pan and braise for longer.
Present the pasta with grated pecorino (or topped with a little ricotta – you do not want to end up with grey ricotta, so do not mix through).
Although Sicily is relatively small, the food is very local and there are always regional variations:
Keep the squid white – sauté it in a little oil for a few minutes (add a 1 chopped clove of garlic and 1-2 tablespoons of finely cut parsley). Fold it through the dressed pasta gently and reserve some for on top.
·Add 1 cup of shelled peas at the same time as the tomatoes.
·Add bay leaves at the same time as the squid.
·Reserve some of the salsa and present the black pasta with a spoon of salsa and a spoon of ricotta on top.
Photos of Ravioli and Pasta are by Graeme Gilles, stylist Fiona Rigg, from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.