Tag Archive | "Gardening"

Behold the Almighty Cucuzza

Behold the Almighty Cucuzza



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.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white or yellow onion, sliced in quarters
as many cloves of garlic as you can handle (3 or 4, if you want an average amount)
1 16-ounce can or jar of crushed tomatoes
1 cucuzza, peeled, sliced, and cut into half moons
(I used ½ of the tremendous cucuzza in these pictures. Just eyeball it based on how much your pan can fit. Grill the rest.)
salt and pepper to taste
oregano to taste 

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.

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Gone Fig Pickin’

Gone Fig Pickin’

The figs keep flowing in my parents’ New Jersey garden, and this week we finally went to the source. Joe had never been fig picking, and my dear, short parents (Mom is 4′ 10″ and Dad is 5′ 3″) had a surplus of overripe figs on the tree that they just couldn’t reach. So it was a perfect meeting. Fig picking in the suburbs on a bright sunny day…it’s that perfect time of year.

The tree of life.

Close-up in the sun.

Joe’s first picked fig!

Making the tall guy do the dirty work.

Dad’s latest harvest. Yes!

Nothing better than a bowl of figs on a September afternoon.

Remember when I said we never use figs in recipes? I take it back. My sis-in-law invented the perfect meal: Provolone, fig, and mortadella sandwich.

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Figs are here!

Figs are here!

It’s that glorious time of year….figs have arrived! My parents just picked these plump babies from their tree in New Jersey. We wait all year for them, then spend August and September eating figs full-time. I feel a subtle obligation to make something fancy and then share my prolific recipe. But honestly, we never let them last long enough to even think of doing anything but eat them straight-up. You can certainly find a slew of creative recipes involving ricotta, honey, balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, etc. I’m sure they’re all swell, but listen: if you should ever find yourself in the presence of figs, do yourself a favor. Pop one in your mouth. That’s all you need. They’ll sing their own song, without the help of anyone.

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Garden Fail: My Sad Little Harvest

Garden Fail: My Sad Little Harvest

I’m not ashamed to admit defeat. My garden this year was a total flop. My theories:

1. A little of me being a bad mom. Busy schedule, not pruning, watering, and feeding them enough. I’m not about to get nominated for any gardener-of-the-year awards.

2. A little of the weather. It’s been so, so hot in New York this year, some say it’s too hot for tomatoes to perform at their best. I like this theory.

3. A little bad luck. Maybe my soil didn’t have enough nutrients? Maybe they didn’t get as much sun as I thought? Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have a big tomato harvest this year?

Whatever it is, this sad little bowl sums up the year’s harvest. I had 10 tomato plants, and only 2 actually produced tomatoes. And you can see what few they gave me. Sigh. It’s okay. There’s always next year. I will not let this bring me down!


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Misadventures in Tomato Rearing (or, What Would Nonno Do?)

Misadventures in Tomato Rearing (or, What Would Nonno Do?)

I’ve been working on my own garden of sorts this summer. I originally had high hopes for planting in the ground, but I ended up with pots along the edge of our tiny urban “lawn” after a difference of opinions with my neighbor on who can plant where. Fine. I’ve moved on.

It started innocently enough, with some patio tomatoes and cucumbers from the hardware store. Nothing major, just low maintenance enough for my unruly life. They were doing well for a while, growing strong, sprouting flowers, keeping calm. Just like store-bought seedlings should, I suppose. Then the bad kids showed up, leaving nothing but poor examples in their wake.

My grandfather gave me a pot of tomato seedlings he’d grown from last year’s seeds. You could imagine my excitement at this prospect—ten direct descendants from his holy garden! I promptly set them up in their own pots, complete with support sticks for when they’d inevitably need them. And then the daydreaming began. I tend to do this: dreams of overflowing bowls of tomatoes, salads with cucumbers, tomatoes, an red onions. Sauce. Stew. Tomatoes and eggs. All from my little jungle out back. What a glorious summer it would be.

But things aren’t turning out quite like I’d planned. For one thing, they will not listen to me. They’re out of control, growing every which way, paying no mind to their neighboring plants—even their own tomato siblings in the pots next to them. They keep getting taller, demanding more water, more space, more support, and they refuse to flower. Finally, *finally,* a couple of them sprouted flowers this week. But I won’t get my hopes up. In the meantime, I’m tying more support sticks to those already there, which are no longer enough. I’m catering to their whims like a fretting first-time mother.

And even worse, they’re teaching their store-bought cousins that this behavior is okay. Our dear, once-well-behaved plum tomato plant is a disorderly mess. It grew so tall, so quickly, that the stem snapped under its own weight. That incident actually sparked a new brand of crazy. The stem that snapped was full of green tomatoes, so rather than giving it up for dead we thought, what would Nonno do? Channeling his unconventional resourcefulness, we rigged a support system–a cast of sorts, by tying thread tightly around the injured stem with the hope that it would survive. Half was already completely broken, but we were hopeful the rest of the stem would hold up. And damn, did it. Our little thread cast was a miracle healer. This plant never knew it was injured. It’s been blooming and sprouting tomatoes more than any of its intact cousins. We’re so proud of him.

As for the rest of these guys, they just won’t give us any tomatoes. What’s going on?? Anyone else having this problem? Or are we just bad parents? My grandfather isn’t having this problem. Maybe it’s our soil. I’ll have to consult Google, I suppose. The fruitless chaos just continues to grow…

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The Great Basil

The Great Basil

No one can visit my grandparents’ house in the summer months and leave without a bag full of greens from the garden. People worry about offending them if they refuse the goods, but I think their feeling is more one of panic: I can see the two of them home, surrounded by basil, tomatoes, eggplants, and whathaveyous, bagging produce for guests, worried all that stuff won’t get eaten in time. Perhaps I should petition for them to start a CSA.

Being the helpful granddaughter that I am, I recently raided their garden for the first wave of basil. It was a hit-and-run basil pickup as I stuffed the bag into the car’s back seat. We were on our way to visit my new niece, so the excitement of having them meet their first great-granddaughter dissolved all thoughts of greenery.

When I opened the bag later that night, something seemed amiss. “I thought they gave us basil,” I said to Joe, my authority on all things edible (except for baking). We poked through the bag a little dumbfounded. It looked like a bag of field greens or baby spinach, the leaves were so gigantic. Obviously they weren’t, but I’m so used to seeing puny little basil leaves, two to three inches long at most, that I barely recognized this as basil.

With its identity confirmed, we did what any kids armed with their parents’ recipes and their grandparents’ harvest would do: We made pesto. 

And for dinner, a fresh batch of tomatoes and eggs.

This was also a great excuse to bust out the seasoned salt we picked up from Dario Cecchini at his butcher shop in Tuscany two years ago. I’m such a hoarder with things like this, we’ve hardly used the little jar for fear it will run out.

You can find endless recipes for pesto online, and unless you want tips for experimentation you don’t truly need one for a classic pesto. Just arm yourself with basil, olive oil, pine nuts (or walnuts if you don’t want to splurge on expensive pine nuts), salt, pepper, garlic, and Parmesan. The quantity of each is entirely up to you. Just start by combining the basil and olive oil in a blender or food processor. Add one garlic clove and season to your preferences. Then keep tasting and adding things as you like them. If you’re too fearful to forge ahead without a recipe, this is a great one.

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The Garden is in Bloom—Make Good Use of Those Road Signs

The Garden is in Bloom—Make Good Use of Those Road Signs

I’d like to introduce you to my grandpa Sal. Nonno Sal moved to Manhattan from Sicily in 1954. He lived alone on 92nd Street, working, saving money, and creating a home for my grandma and dad until they immigrated over 2 years later. He worked in road construction, laying tar to build the city streets. He recently told me that he built the roads for the terminals at JFK and for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, among other major streets. I can go on…I can’t sit down with him and my grandma without getting some crazy story that makes me wonder how much I really know them.

You’ll be hearing about them a lot, but I’d like to start with Nonno’s garden. He and Nonna have lived in their house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn since 1963. It’s the only house that’s been consistently in my life since birth, and its magic is not to be taken lightly. Take their garden, for instance. When I was a child it seemed like acres, but in truth, it’s a 15 x 20-foot patch surrounded by concrete and fences. But that’s never bothered them. They came from the country, running around on farms and picking vegetables every day. They moved to America for a new life, but the country never truly left them.

And so, naturally, the only thing to do was turn that patch into a fully-functioning vegetable farm. Wouldn’t anyone?

Their little concrete farm houses a two-story persimmon tree, beds of scallions, garlic, onions, fava beans, string beans, escarole, eggplants, zucchini, celery, and cucumber vines. Their tomatoes alone deserve an entire chapter in a book. The vegetables aren’t even the best part. My grandfather has taken the art of using what you have to an impressive level. Nothing has been overlooked for building material: wood, road signs, sheet metal, old window screens—they’ve all been transformed. Road signs and wood planks were turned into dividers for raised beds. Sheet metal creates barriers for squirrels and mice; bright orange caution tape tied around aluminum poles mark vegetable beds. Severed stereo chords tie vines to  support staffs. Paint buckets and faded bed sheets cover fig trees for winter. Squash vines weave in and out of repurposed piping overhead to create a canopy. Old work shirts wave from fences as makeshift scarecrows.

Recreating this garden is something that any sensible person understands is not entirely possible. You can’t just start transforming scrap household items into garden equipment all willy nilly. He’s been digging in that dirt for 47 years, building and “designing” the beds, supports, layout, and scarecrows; learning what thrives best in Brooklyn soil, what can survive the winter, how to wrap up a fig tree in t-shirts and garbage bags just right.

There’s still a lot to learn from his vegetable garden, even if you can’t recreate his world. Most of his advice won’t be found in gardening books, and experts may disagree with much of it. For example:


  • Never underestimate the usefulness of anything. Coffee cans, old screens, sheets, pipes, broom handles, Tupperware—this is all building material for raised beds, support systems, and weatherizing.
  • Talk to your troops. At 5am, preferably, when it’s just you and them, with no city distractions.
  • Baby them. Then baby them some more. In high heat, he waters them twice daily and talks to them even more. All they want is water, sun, and company, he says.
  • Anything can be a scarecrow. And by scarecrow I mean scaresquirrel, scaremouse, scarepigeon, scarealleycat…whatever deterrents you’re building, you’re probably not worried about crows if you’re in a city. Growing up I remember he used to put pipes through the sleeves of an old flannel shirt and top it off with a bucket for a head. Cowbells placed in unexpected places to catch the wind also help.
  • You don’t need as much room as you think. In the years I’ve spent fussing over gardening books, I found this is the one rule my grandpa defies the most. Forget planting tomatoes 12, 24, 36, however many inches apart. He squeezes 3 to 4 plants into a 12-inch pot, and they’re all bulging with fruit. Plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, whatever. They’re all squeezed in, and they’re all happy.

I can’t match his efforts; not in the backyard of our ground-floor rental, where our neighbor’s flowers occupy most of the yard. But it doesn’t mean I can’t create a little patch of madness here. A couple of months ago I planted pots of tomatoes out of seedlings from his yard. I have 10 babies growing right now, plus a few cucumber vines. If all goes well I’ll have the goods for sauce, pickled green tomatoes, salads…let’s see what the summer brings.

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