Last week we had a diversity event on my college’s campus, and I was asked to prepare a booth on Italian-Americans. Since October is Italian-American Heritage Month, I thought I would share some of it as a blog as well. (Oh, and I’ve included a tarantella to put you in the right mood while you read.)
There’s a litney of contributions by Italian-Americans I could have shared and a long list of names, nationally and locally, all of whom deserve recognition. But instead, I opted for something more basic, something we share, something that reflects us as a group – good, hearty, and comforting food.
As with other immigrants, when Italians came to America most were leaving behind a difficult life in hopes of a better future. The bulk of Italians who made the Atlantic crossing were mezzogiorni or Southern Italians, which reflected the historic reality that Southern Italy was significantly less prosperous than Northern. While in Italy, they lived and made the most of what they had. An example of this is the cultivation of cucuzza, an edible gourd that can grow up to five feet in length.
The plant requires little space when trellised and is a prolific producer.
Southern Italians made the most of the plant, consuming both the gourd and its tender shoots and leaves.
Tenerumi is made from the (deveined) leaves and tender shoots sautéed with garlic. Cucuzza can also be incorporated into soups and stews, stuffed, breaded and fried as a stand-alone dish or incorporated in cucuzza parmigiana, or served raw in salads.
As they immigrated, Italians brought the seeds with them. Today, it’s not uncommon to find cucuzza in the gardens of Italian-Americans across the country.
If you are fortunate enough to have an Italian-American neighbor who grows cucuzza, ask for one. Trust me, they will have extras. Like I said, these plants produce. If you’re not as fortunate, then you can probably find cucuzza in a market that specializes in Mediterranean food or sometimes in Asian markets as well.)
One large cucuzza (3 or 4 feet long)
A large bunch of carrots peeled and chopped or large bag of baby carrots.
Three or four garlic cloves chopped
Two large (28 ounces) cans of petite diced tomatoes
(Fresh tomatoes are better if they are homegrown. But don’t use the tasteless ones you get from most groceries.)
Optional – one large can of tomato puree
Oregano, salt, and pepper
You can also add celery, potatoes, etc., pretty much veggie that strikes your fancy, of course. Adding stew meat is also an option.
Peel the Cucuzza. Slice it down the middle longways. Clean out the soft interior with seeds. I usually use a spoon to scoop this out. Then cut the cucuzza into roughly half inch cubes.
In a ten quart soup pot or crockpot, combine cucuzza, carrots, diced tomatoes, and garlic.
Add dried or fresh chopped oregano, salt, and black pepper to tastes. (I really like oregano, so I tend to add a little extra.) Add two to four cups of water as needed water.
You will probably need to cut the acid of the tomatoes. For this batch, I used about a tablespoon of sugar. Don’t worry, it does not make it taste sweet. It just balances the acid. There are other options as well. Mr. Maltese, one of my music instructors from my undergraduate years added raisins to his sauces. I do this for sauces, but tend not to do it for soups and stews. Another trick that I have used is adding a whole, peeled Russet potato, which you remove before serving. Baking soda also could be used.
Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender. I usually like to let it set overnight to allow, as a friend says, the flavors to marry.