If you have never eaten vine tendrils, you are not alone. I lived in Tuscany for many years, and never heard of tenerumi, the vine tendrils of the cucuzza plant. In fact, I had never heard of cucuzza. But here in Sicily, cucuzza is a common summer vegetable, a kind of thin pale green zucchina often of obscenely long length. Relatively tasteless, they are the subject of a Sicilian proverb: Falla come vuoi, sempre cucuzza è. (However you cook it, it’s still just squash.)
At the weekly farmer’s market in Modica, Sicily, I found freshly cut tenerumi, vine tendrils and leaves of the cucuzza plant. Though I had eaten them a few times, and enjoyed their pleasantly nutty taste with a slightly bitter edge, I’d never cooked them myself. But I was feeling extravagant, so plunked down my 1 euro and 50 cents, gambling on making something good out of a couple of bunches.
The vendor suggested that I boil them and then dress them with olive oil, a classically simple cooking method used for many Sicilian greens- I suspect if you use excellent olive oil, it would make even cooked grass taste good. But I wanted more info, so I phoned Emanuele’s sister Elisa for further advice. It just so happened that her sister Nella was visiting, and as I was jotting down the cooking instructions, Nella disagreed, and took over the phone, so I ended up combining their advice into a final recipe.
The recipe below makes tenerumi cooked greens, or you can then continue, as I did, and make tenerumi soup with pasta and greens.
Tenerumi Sicilian Greens
- 1 colander full (about 2 lb, 1 kilo) cleaned tenerumi
- ¾ lb. (300 grams) fresh ripe tomatoes
- 1 garlic clove
- 4 TB extra-virgin olive oil
- Fresh basil
- Hot red pepper (optional)
- Snap off the leaves, tender stems and tendrils, discarding any tough stems and overly large or yellow leaves, and put them in a basin filled with water and wash thoroughly.
- If you find a few tiny underdeveloped cucuzze, break them in half and add those to the basin.
- Change the water a couple of times to make sure there is no grit left in the leaves.
- Pile the washed tenerumi in a colander.
- Place a large pot of water to boil.
- Place the tomatoes in the boiling water for a minute, then take them out and place them in cold water so that they will now be easy to peel.
- Add some salt to the boiling water, put in the tenerumi, cover and simmer until almost tender but still bright green in color.
- Meanwhile, in another pot, sauté the garlic clove in the olive oil, then discard the clove.
- Peel the tomatoes, cut into small pieces, and add to the oil.
- Add the optional hot pepper if you want a piccante touch.
- Take the cooked greens out of the pot but save the cooking water – I do this by taking out clumps of greens with tongs, and plopping them on a big cutting board.
- Roughly chop the tenerumi and add them to the sautè pot.
- Cook until tomatoes are soft, adding a few tablespoons of cooking water.
- Stir in a few basil leaves, and salt to taste.
- Serve as a side dish tenerumi greens – sop up the oil and juice with thick crusty bread and you have a good summer lunch.
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