You may know Carolyn Cope as Umami Girl. She stops by on Tuesdays with ideas on preparing the abundance of fruits and vegetables you might get from your CSA or the market. —The Mgmt.
[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]
Of all the ways I've worried over the years about falling short, being a decent Italian-American was never one of them. I can my own tomatoes. I live in New Jersey. I know from red wine. I worry a lot about whether I fall short. See? Seems like I had the bases covered.
But until our latest trip to the farmers' market, I can't remember ever having seen or heard of a cucuzza. And if anyone ever called me "googootz" as a term of endearment, it went right over my head. Ah, Madonna! Where did I go wrong?
Anxious to reclaim my rightful roots, I spent the better part of the weekend making up for lost time. I photographed my googootzes holding cucuzzas. I researched. I sang. I breaded. (Work warning: Louis Prima starts singing when you click that link.)
Let me tell you what I learned. The cucuzza (say ko-KOO-tza or, for slang, goo-GOOTZ) is technically a gourd but generally gets treated in the kitchen like a summer squash. A member of the calabash family that also includes bottle gourds, cucuzza is also known as zuzza, New Guinea bean, and Tasmania bean, among other names. (Complicating matters, "cucuzza" is used as a general term for squash in certain regions of Italy.) The cucuzza originated in Italy, and seeds are often still passed down through families. It also grows in other temperate climates, including several parts of East Asia, and it's used in numerous East Asian cuisines.
Cucuzza looks like a smooth, pale zucchini with an elegant curvature and can be up to three feet in length. Its pale green skin needs to be peeled, and the white flesh is generally cooked rather than eaten raw. The flesh has an extremely mild taste and, even when peeled, holds its shape well when cooked. If the seeds are tender, you can eat them, but they start to get harder as the squash matures. If the seeds are hard, discard them. Cucuzza can be steamed, grilled, fried, baked, sauteed, stuffed, or used almost any other way you would use summer squash, as long as you peel it first.
At the market, look for smooth, firm gourds with some stem still attached. The stem continues to feed the gourd after picking and buys you more storage time.
The recipe below is a variation on zucchini fries, breaded and baked rather than fried. You can shallow fry them in a bit of olive oil if you prefer (or deep fry them if you really want to bring out the big guns), and you can substitute unpeeled zucchini if that's what you've got.
Baked Cucuzza "Fries"
- One 1 1/2-pound cucuzza
- 3/4 cup Italian-seasoned dry bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1 egg
- Olive oil, for drizzling
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Trim the ends off the cucuzza and peel it with a vegetable peeler. If it is long, cut it crosswise into several pieces so it is easier to work with. Then halve each piece lengthwise. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds. Cut into sticks. Sprinkle with salt.
In a shallow dish, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and cayenne.
Bake for about 7 minutes, until golden on the underside. Flip and bake for about 5 minutes more. Sprinkle with additional salt and serve.