Tenerumi from the Union Square Greenmarket.
Recipe: Spaghetti with Tenerumi and Pomodoro Crudo
Often when cooking I find that just the look of an ingredient can inspire me. As a kid, when I first saw cucuzza growing in our neighbors’, the Cavuotis’, backyard garden, I knew that long, twisted, snaky zucchini type thing, which they called “zucca lunga,” was weird and mysterious and therefore attractive. I never knew what they did with it, and I was maybe a little afraid to ask.
I didn’t think much about zucca lunga for a decade or so after that, until it started showing up at city Greenmarkets. There it was, light green, really long, and just as weird as when I first spotted it taking over Mr. Cavuoti’s garden. I bought one, took it home, chopped it up, and went about cooking it as I would zucchini. Boy, what a disappointment. It was a bore.
Zucca lunga for sale in Sicily.
But as I learned a few years later, while traveling around Sicily for the first time, one of the treatments for zucca lunga is to candy it, just as they do with citron, and use it to decorate cassatas or cannolis. They also turn it into a dull, watery soup. But I also learned that the tendrils—the stems and leaves—are what are really prized. The beautiful, tangled greens the squash produces are a Sicilian summertime treat, usually worked into a soupy pasta dish. And that’s just what I made this week when I found tenerumi tied up in big, wild-looking bunches at the Union Square market. The tenerumi looked both lovely and frightening at the same time. I hate to say it, but to me the stuff almost looks like it’s moving. Its kinky coils resemble skinny worms poking their way out from amid a mass of stems and tender dark green leaves. That was fine with me.
A pretty standard Sicilian pasta consists of tenerumi, garlic, maybe a bit of hot chili, and tomato, all simmered together and finished with a sprinkling of pecorino. That is more or less the recipe I found in Natalia Ravida’s lovely book Seasons of Sicily, among other places. Broken spaghetti is the traditional pasta employed with tenerumi, but I always object to the messy look that produces, and I decided instead to just go with the regular pasta. Otherwise I didn’t stray far from the classic Sicilian rendition. I did, however, decide to keep my summer tomato raw, added only at the last minute, for a fresh burst of contrasting flavor and texture.
Tenerumi has a beautiful taste. Somehow I’d expect something so dramatic-looking to be bitter, but it’s actually very delicate. I’m not sure why, but its flavor reminds me of Chinese dishes that incorporate wilted greens, possibly because the taste is somewhat like pea shoots. But it’s much more subtle. Pea shoots taste like peas; tenerumi doesn’t really taste like the squash, and to me, in fact, the squash tastes like almost nothing.
I’m not sure what a good substitute for tenerumi would be. You could make a similar pasta with Swiss chard, I suppose, but this stuff really has a unique flavor and texture. I would say, if you find a bunch of tenerumi at your farmer’s market, pick it up and try this pasta.
Spaghetti with Tenerumi and Pomodoro Crudo
2 medium-size ripe summer tomatoes, seeded and cut into very small dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 big bunch tenerumi, the tough stems trimmed
½ pound spaghetti
About ¼ cup small diced pancetta
3 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh hot chili (such as a jalapeño or a peperoncino) minced (remove the seeds if you like less heat)
A splash of dry Marsala
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of mild pecorino cheese
Place the diced tomato in a colander, sprinkle it with a little salt, and give it a toss. Let it drain over a bowl for about 30 minutes, and save the drained tomato water. Pour the tomatoes into a small bowl, and drizzle them with olive oil, giving them a toss.
Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
Cut the tenerumi into approximately 1- inch lengths, discarding some of the coily parts and any really thick stems that are still attached. Throw the tenerumi into the water, and blanch for about 3 minutes. Scoop it from the water into a colander with a large strainer spoon. Run cold water over it to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water as you can from it. Bring the cooking water back to a boil.
Drop the spaghetti into the water.
In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and let it get nice and crisp. Add the garlic and the fresh chili, and sauté until everything softens and gives off a good aroma. Add the tenerumi, seasoning it with salt. Sauté until the greens are well coated with oil and everything is fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add any tomato water you’ve collected from draining the tomatoes.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water. Pour the spaghetti into a large serving bowl, and drizzle it with a generous amount of fresh olive oil. Add the basil, and grate on about a tablespoon or so of pecorino. Give it a toss. Now add the tenerumi sauce and enough of the pasta cooking water to moisten everything well (the dish should be a little loose). Toss well. Serve hot with extra pecorino brought to the table for grating.