In Sicily, autumn is slow to make its presence known. Even as squashes appear in the markets and borage appears in the fields, the sea is still warm and beach days are common. Not in Germany. I came back from a trip to Vegas on one of the first days of September and was more than a little shocked to discover the temperature had plummeted. The markets are full of chanterelles and I was scrambling to find my gloves.
I share with my mother a dread for the fall. I quite like many things autumn brings with it (new apples, squash) but it also means going back to school (ugh) and the inevitable march of winter (omg death). So, I try to focus on the welcome developments: Halloween decorations, apple cider, mushroom hunting… anything to stay positive.
In this vein, I came home with some Hokkaido squashes yesterday, ready to make one of my favorite seasonal dishes: cucuzza in agruduci or sweet-and-sour squash. In Sicily the dish is made either with the “yellow” zucca gialla (in Palermo often referred to as “cucuzza baffa”) which looks a lot like a Long Island cheese pumpkin, or the “red” zucca rossa, which has more of a jack o lantern shape and darker color inside and out.
The Hokkaido is much softer than the typical Sicilian squashes but it’s more or less the only squash we see and it has an excellent flavor so it’s well worth making the dish with them. If you’re on the west coast of the US, butternut squash makes an excellent dish. East coasters with access to cheese pumpkins or other dry-fleshed winter squash, you’ll come closer to the original.
The dish is Sicilian in the extreme: simple, fried, sweet-and-sour, lightened with a bright touch of mint at the end. It makes a flavorful addition to an antipasto platter or a formidable side dish to a robust but simple roast, like a capon or veal breast. I like it cold but not straight out of the fridge – 20 minutes on the counter lets it open up. Lukewarm or room temperature is fine too. I find the sourness of the dish too pronounced when it’s warm, but at the end of the day, you can eat it however you like. The cucuzza police are not out to get you and there is no permanent record…
Sweet & Sour Squash | Cucuzza in Agruduci
Fried squash slices with sweet and sour sauce with mint.
- 1 orange-fleshed squash
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup red or white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 sprig fresh mint chopped
- 1 sprig fresh mint for garnish
Prepare the squash
Cut the squash in two, remove the seeds and stringy core, and peel it. If the skin is quite thin you can use a sturdy vegetable peeler.
Slice the squash into roughly 3/4 cm / 1/3 inch slices. If the type of squash you're using is really hard you could go thinner.
Fry the squash
Heat about 1/4 inch or half a centimeter of extra virgin olive oil in a pan big enough to accommodate all the sliced squash comfortably later, over medium-high heat.
When the oil is hot enough to make the corner of a piece of squash sizzle excitedly, add a single layer of squash and fry until golden brown on the underside. Turn the squash over and cook through.
Adjust the heat so that you can brown the squash and cook it through in the same amount of time. Under-browned squash will leave you with an anemic flavor, over cooking will make the squash fall apart. Try and hit the sweet spot.
Transfer the cooked squash to a plate with whatever oil is clinging to the squash. You are not trying to drain it. Sprinkle the squash lightly with salt as it comes out of the oil. Repeat with the remaining squash.
Make the sauce
While the squash is frying, mix the vinegar, sugar and a healthy pinch of salt in a glass or small bowl to dissolve. After the last of the squash has been cooked, remove all but two tablespoons of the frying oil and add the contents of the glass.
Once the liquid is bubbling vigorously, add all the squash back to the pan and cook until the sauce is reduced to a thick consistency and the vinegar has lost its sharp edge. Mix to combine but gently; try to avoid breaking up the squash. Turn off the heat.
Taste the sauce. If the sauce has become too sweet, add some drops of vinegar to enliven it. Add salt if needed, keeping in mind the dish will be served lukewarm or cold which diminishes the effect of salt.
Now you have a decision to make: if you prefer a more muted mint flavor that goes throughout the dish, add the mint now and stir gently to combine. Otherwise sprinkle it over the finished dish on the platter.
Turn the contents of the pan out onto a broad platter. If you did not add the mint before, sprinkle it over the dish now, using the residual heat to unlock its aroma. This results in a brighter, more herbaceous mint flavor that contrasts the squash rather than becoming part of it.
Let the dish cool completely. Refrigerate if desired. If serving the dish cold, allow it to stand outside the refrigerator for about 20 minutes before serving.
Serve with a bright and spry sprig of fresh mint.