Serpent of Sicily has many uses

February 7, 2018

One of the great things about Italians is their slang or idioms. If something is purposely difficult, an Italian does not "do it with his hands tied behind his back,” but "jumps ditches the long way" (Saltare I fossi per il lungo). A slang term for squash is "goo-GOOTZ," and much like an American calling his sweetheart "pumpkin," googootz is a term of endearment. That is why in the last episode of “The Sopranos” when Tony is looking for his son, he asks Carmela, "Where's Googootz?"

All this brings us to a bland, strange squash popular in Sicily, the Zuchetta Serpente di Sicilia (Lagenaria siceraria) also called the Serpent of Sicily, or simply Cucuzza. Things are never what they seem in Sicily, and sure enough, the Serpent Squash isn't a squash at all but a gourd. The giveaway is its white flowers, whereas all squash have yellow flowers. But gourd or squash, it is usually treated as a zucchini.

The fruit can grow to ridiculous lengths, and four-foot, club-like specimens are not unheard of. Like most summer squash, Cucuzza is most tender when small, under 10 or 12 inches. This is a robust grower that can reach over 20 feet long. The Zuchetta Serpente has another secret, almost unknown to Americans. In addition to eating the young fruit as a summer squash you can, and should, eat the tender growing tips of the vines, a dish called Tenerumi. These tender shoots and small new leaves are part of Sicilian summer soup.

Seeds are sometimes available at local nurseries or garden centers, or by mail from specialty houses such as Seeds of Italy ( Plant seeds directly in the garden after the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost is past. For better germination, soak the seeds overnight in lukewarm water. You can start them indoors in individual peat pots for a quicker harvest.

Sow four seeds in hills or small mounds six feet apart. Choose a spot with full sun and rich soil that is neutral pH 6.6-7.5. Add lots of organic material such as compost to the planting area. A mulch of straw or leaves will keep weeds down and hold in moisture. Once the seeds have sprouted, thin to the two strongest plants per hill. Now stand back and watch the vines race across the garden. You will pick your first squash in just 70 days. You can pick the growing tips of the vines and tender leaves anytime. You can also grow these on a sturdy trellis, which not only makes a very interesting canopy but keeps the fruit off the ground so they are less likely to get soil-borne diseases or rot. Set up your trellis before you plant.

Plant Zuchetta Serpente di Sicilia and enjoy edible leaf tips or use the very bland squash to soak up other flavors in soups or stir-fries. And take it easy, because after all, as they say in Sicily, "Falla come vuoi, sempre cucuzza è," meaning, "However you cook it, it's still just squash."

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter