Sicilian delicacy: tenerumi
One of the reasons ‘tenerumi’ are little known and even less prepared in the rest of Italy has, alas, a complex racist background. People migrating from Sicily and trying to fit in the Northern regions, avoided eating and promoting leaves. That would be a too easy target for the local population. Eating such rudimentary and basic dishes only reinforced the idea southerners were ‘terroni’, earth bound people. The North ate meat, fish and cheese, in the North food had to be abundant and rich. Nowadays the food situation has changed but it still hard to find a good plate -or bowl- of tenerumi outside sunny Sicily.
Lost in translation
There is, of course, no single word that translates trigs and leaves of a snake form courgette. Unlike other Italian dishes, this one did not travel and conformed to foreign palates. So no need for purist to protect the recipe, no vitriolic articles full of indignation, no raising the Italian flag. Pasta with tenerumi is among the purest recipes imaginable. And although it has no international acclaim, it does have potential of a world champion.
They are part of the Cucurbitaceae family with acquaintances such as squash, pumpkin and watermelon. This kind of long, snake-like zucchini has soft velvety leaves and are therefor called ‘tenerumi’ (tenere hence tender). Together with the sprigs and the zucchini themselves they form the basis for a wonderful summer dish. For some unknown reason only Sicilians cultivate them. Pasta with tenerumi is refreshing and depurative, even when eaten piping hot on a torrid day. As where Moroccans have their hot mint tea and the Indians super spicy curries, Palermo and province has pasta with tenerumi.
Summer on a plate
This pasta tastes like summer but not in a heat related way. It does not recall torrid afternoons, sweaty evenings or sultry nights but rather the light heartedness, carefree days, living life outside, in good company. Days in which nature is at the peak of its abundance. Well, a plate of pasta with tenerumi is usually greeted as an old friend, and at the peak of the tenerumi season, as a good friend anyway. This is a dish that makes Sicilians abroad melancholic, a dish people dream about in winter, an emblematic dish, representing all Sicily stands for.
To prepare pasta with tenerumi you need few ingredients apart leaves and trigs: some tomato and garlic, a drizzle of oil and salt. Because that is just enough, add nothing more. The very essence, the reason and success of the dish is simplicity. Not having other ingredients available may have historically lead to the preparation, but even nowadays every extra feels out of place. Since you are not going to prepare this dish yourself – unless you are in Sicily during the season and have a kitchen at your disposal, just sit back and enjoy the purity.
Spaghetti, the doctrine says, should not be broken, nor before nor after being boiled. Supposedly only a fork can be used to eat spaghetti, a spoon is for the clumsy, a knife for the savage. Though pasta with tenerumi does come with broken spaghetti. Being soup-like it is eaten with a spoon, and as you can imagine, eating strings of pasta easily turns into a circus act. Besides, the mere breaking is highly satisfying and surly therapeutic. The idea of home cooking and comfort food is enhanced by the irregularity of the pasta. Breaking the pasta before boiling implies an increased release in starch, making soups thicker and hence tastier.
Recipe for tenerumi
First of all: congratulations and welcome: you managed to find tenerumi and are thus probably in Sicily.
240 grams of spaghetti (broken)
6 stems of tenerumi
1 snake courgette
3 peeled plum tomato
2 cloves of garlic
Start by preparing a ‘picchi pacchi -piki paki’ by browning the garlic in oil. Remove the garlic and add the diced tomato. Let it simmer away for ten minutes and turn of the gas. Strip the tender and velvety leaves from the stems, keep the tender sprouts. Peel the courgette, remove the seeds and dice it up. Boil the lot in abundant, slightly salted, water for about 10 minutes, after which you add the pasta. Although you should not worry about it being ‘al dente’, don’t overcook. Add the tomato, stir and serve. If you want to add grated cheese, better go for a strong pecorino, caciocavallo or salted ricotta. Serve lukewarm or even piping hot.
Didn’t you manage to come to Sicily or find snake courgette leaves? Most other Cucurbitaceae are edible too, a little known fact but tasty indeed; and it goes very well with vegetarian friends who are aways looking for new veggies. Nettles are a very good substitute snake courgette leaves. You may not want to tell people they are nettles, since the association with being stung is overwhelming. Once cooked they loose that nasty habit.