I wish I had thought to take a photo of the Sicilian summer squash I found at the farmer’s market before I got inspired to cook it! Long, slender, with a crooked neck and pale, smooth skin, cucuzze (as these light green squash are known in Italy) are a summer delicacy in Sicily and Calabria. They have a more compact texture than most varieties of squash and a sweet, delicate flavor. Many Sicilian-Americans grow these squash in their home gardens, and if you are lucky, so might one of the farmers at the green market you frequent.
In the summer, Sicilians slow-cook the squash with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions, making a delectable minestrone of sorts, finishing it with broken spaghetti to thicken up the broth in the last few minutes of cooking. But pastas made with cucuzze abound; some feature the tender green squash leaves (known as tenerumi); others, like mine below, are flavored simply with tomatoes, onions, and basil. If you can get your hands on Caciocavallo cheese, a sharp, melting cheese akin to Provolone, use it instead of the Pecorino for a more authentically Sicilian flavor. And of course, if you can’t find cucuzze, simply use taut, small green zucchini instead in this recipe; it will still be delicious!
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer
For the rigatoni:
- 3 and 1/2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 and 1/2 ounces semolina flour
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 large eggs
For the sauce:
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/8 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
- 1/4 cup water, plus extra as needed
- 1/2 pound Sicilian summer squash (cucuzza), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
To cook and serve:
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 ounces (1/2 cup) freshly grated Pecorino Romano
- 12 basil leaves, torn
Make the rigatoni: Combine the all-purpose flour, semolina flour, and salt on a counter. Make a well in the center and add the eggs to the well. Using a fork at first, draw the flour into the eggs. When all of the flour has been incorporated, begin kneading the dough by hand; knead until it is smooth and firm, about 10 minutes.
If the dough is dry, add a touch of water; if it is moist, add a touch of flour. Shape into a ball, dust with flour, and place under an inverted bowl on the counter; let rest 30 minutes to relax the gluten.
Using a pasta machine, shape the dough into rigatoni. We used a pasta extruder for this purpose. If you don’t have a pasta extruder, but you have a regular pasta machine, or a rolling pin, or a bottle, roll out into thin sheets and cut into tagliatelle, pappardelle, or whatever shape you prefer.
Set the cut pasta aside on several sheets of parchment paper, spread out and dusted with semolina flour so it does not stick, while you prepare the sauce. (You can also substitute 1/2 pound of dried pasta if time is short or you don’t feel like making fresh pasta.)
Make the sauce: Place the olive oil, garlic, chili, and onion in a deep, wide skillet large enough to accommodate the pasta later. Cook over medium heat until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the water and stir. Cover and cook 5 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the onion is soft.
Uncover, add the squash, and saute 5 minutes, or until the squash is just starting to soften. Add the tomatoes, season with the salt, and cook, covered, 10 minutes, or until the squash is soft and the tomatoes have broken down into a rich sauce, adding water as needed if the sauce dries out. There should always be about 1/4 cup of liquid in the skillet.
To cook the pasta: Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the rigatoni. Cook until shy of al dente. Drain, reserving at least 2 cups of the pasta cooking water.
Add the pasta and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water to the simmering sauce. Raise the heat to medium-high and saute until the pasta is al dente, adding more reserved pasta cooking water as needed to thin out the sauce and allow the pasta to cook through. Depending on how far from al dente the pasta was when you drained it, the sauteing step may take anywhere from 1 minute to as long as 5 minutes.
To serve: Stir in the olive oil, pepper, Pecorino, and basil, and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or even at room temperature; this pasta is delicious even after it cools off!