If you grew up in New Orleans, chances are you’ve heard that phrase or have been the recipient of that term of endearment. I’m not sure how much it’s used these days, but when I was little it was expressed often and usually by older women addressing relatives or close friends. Oh, and you may also recognize the word if you were a Sopranos fan. I never watched the show, but have learned that Tony occasionally called his son A.J. “Googootz.” The word stems from cucuzza (pronounced “ku koo za”), an edible Italian gourd that’s treated like a squash in the kitchen. This heirloom veggie found its way to New Orleans many moons ago via Sicilian immigrants and it’s been growing on trellised vines in backyard gardens ever since. The cucuzza pictured below is the one I cooked for this recipe. Isn’t it gorgeous? I have my dear friend Cathy to thank for that. It came from her garden. That generous act of sharing is still prevalent among the locals. One of the many things I love about our City!
A cucuzza is characterized by its pale green skin and long, cylindrical shape–which can easily exceed three feet in length. It has a firm, mild flesh and a pretty long growing season (mid-summer until the first frost). These two factors contribute to its dual personality as both a summer squash and a winter squash. As such, cucuzza can be prepared all sorts of ways. I like it best cooked down with Italian sausage and fiery tomatoes then baked to bubbly perfection with breads crumbs and Parmesan cheese. It’s also delicious paired with shellfish, added to soups and stews, fried and even shredded in salads and slaws (after it’s been peeled and seeded). If cucuzza is not available in your area, you can actually order it online from The Cordaro Cucuzza Plantation in Ruston, Louisiana.
Creole-Italian Baked Cucuzza Recipe
1 large cucuzza (about 36-inches long)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 14.5-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, drained
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
Salt and pepper
Prepare cucuzza. Cut off and discard ends and cut crosswise into three manageable pieces. Remove skin with a vegetable peeler, cut each piece lengthwise and scoop out the seeds (reserve for planting in the spring). Chop into bite-size pieces and set aside. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until tender, 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes more. Add sausage and cook, breaking up the meat with a potato masher or the side of a spoon, until browned, 5-7 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and cucuzza. Reduce heat to medium and partially cover skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cucuzza is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in bread crumbs, 6 tablespoons cheese and oregano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour mixture into a lightly greased baking dish, cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle top with reserved 2 tablespoons cheese and continue baking until cheese is melted, about 3 minutes more. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6-8 servings.