I know, I can’t stop talking about my grandfather’s garden. For one thing, ’tis the season. And, well, there’s just so much to talk about. All quirkiness aside, his garden has all the gems one comes to expect from a Sicilian grandfather’s garden–fennel, basil, tomatoes, figs, eggplants, garlic. It’s our family’s most coveted source for produce. Joe and I welcome a helping from the Bensonhurst harvest over any CSA or coop purchase Park Slope has to offer.
So when my dad called last week saying he was stopping by his parents’ house on the way to visit us, I promptly asked him to bring some surprises from the garden. “Oh, sure. Let me see what they have here…” he said. I thought I heard him chuckle on the other end of the line. Strange. Maybe we’ll get hit with another wave of basil, I thought. He’s probably laughing at us for making so much pesto.
But no. My dad approached our front gate, all grins and still chuckling, with the Garden Loot of all garden loot. The holy grail of Sicilian summer harvests, if there ever was one.
Yes, that’s right. It’s the Almighty Cucuzza. Known by some as googoots, but really, not known by many at all, this is one of the most confusing and coveted vegetables made legendary by our Italian families. Conversations about cucuzza with the uninitiated often go like this:
“Um, what is that?”
“Oh, that? Heh. It’s a cucuzza.”
“What’s a cucuzza?”
“Well, uh, it’s sort of like a squash.”
“That’s a squash? What does it taste like? Where do you get it? I’ve never seen it in stores.”
“I guess it’s a squash. Or more like a zucchini. It tastes like…cucuzza. I don’t know where you get it. I’ve never seen it outside of our garden.”
Right around this time, I either start to feel like a freak (like the time in kindergarten when some girl picked on me for eating “black jelly”–that is, Nutella), or kind of cool. This is cucuzza, people! It looks like a freakin’ baseball bat. It’s taller than a small child. It has graced the tables of our family barbecues for generations, and we barely know what it is. Upon further research, I’ve learned that cucuzza is actually a gourd. Good to know, for the next time I’m in one of those awkward conversations.
Cucuzza is also a slang term in Italian, usually referring to a lazy or useless person. Keep that one up your sleeve. It’s more fun to use than you might think.
All excitement aside, this was the first time I’d been confronted with cooking a cucuzza on my own. It was a little scary. My dad suggested I just slice it up and grill it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. A noble approach, yes, but this cucuzza inspired me to revive an old standby from my grandparents’ summer table: Cucuzza Stew. It was the least I could do after they handed over one of their best crops.
The Almighty Cucuzza Stew
This summer stew has been a staple on our picnic tables for decades. Cucuzza’s flavor is so mild that it turns into a rather light stew. Just as good are cold leftovers the next day, which take on a whole new personality.
As with most stews, quantities and spices can be adapted based on your preferences.
Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until they begin to soften. Add the tomatoes, then the cucuzza slices, and mix until the cucuzza is coated in sauce.
Season with salt, pepper, oregan, and hot pepper flakes to taste. Cover the pan and cook until the cucuzza is soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with a hunk of bread to soak up the sauce.