Ciao a tutti! This week I will share about how to grow the herb oregano and it’s perfect Italian companion zucchini for one of my favorite Italian side-dishes, a simple “stew” of zucchini and tomatoes with onions and oregano. Even children who don’t like summer squash will love this dish!
As I’ve mentioned before, this summer I’ve had to start a new garden from scratch now that I have moved to the Chicago suburbs from Peoria. So I thought I would take a few photos and share some of what I’ve come to know about gardening with this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”
For as long as I can remember, both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America. My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York.
Meanwhile, my grandmother was busy in the kitchen cooking our favorite meals with the fresh fruits and vegetables that my grandfather grew. She passed down the simple but delicious method for stewing zucchini with tomatoes and oregano to our family here in America. After reading about how to grow oregano and zucchini, you can watch me it in action as I cook the dish by clicking the Instagram link if you want!
Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.
Below are my insights on growing oregano and zucchini. Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about gardening!
And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip to Italy! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.
Italian Herb Oregano – Origano
Oregano is a perennial, bush-like plant that is commonly used in tomato salads or combined with zucchini and tomatoes for a vegetable side dish (contorno). In the United States, oregano became popular after World War II, when it was brought back from Italy by American soldiers and became a common addition to tomato sauces in Italian-American households.
Oregano will come up each spring if planted directly in the garden, usually growing a bit larger each year. Oregano likes sun, but can also grow in partial shade. Trim frequently with kitchen scissors and dry or keep the leaves fresh in the refrigerator on the stalk. Significant amounts of oregano can be harvested early in summer and the plant will regrow. Allow to flower late in the summer. The plant is cold hardy and can survive a fall or spring frost, but will die back in the winter. Remove any remaining dead branches in the spring and the plant will grow for another season.
To harvest oregano, cut off the stem with its leaves. Then, use a small knife or your fingers to run down the length of the stem and remove the small leaves. Discard the stem. To dry,, bundle and hang from the stems upside down. When dry, remove the leaves from the stems and store in an air-tight container away from heat.
Italian Summer Squash – Zucchina e Cucuzza
Zucchini in English, or zucchina/zucchine in Italian is a summer squash, also known as a marrow. The immature form of a marrow is called a courgette. The smaller courgettes, which have more flesh and less seeds than the mature summer squash, are used widely in Italian cooking. Zucchini is popular fried, stewed, and even hollowed out and stuffed, and usually served as an appetizer or a side dish. The zucchini flowers are edible and are often stuffed and fried as an appetizer.
Zucchini can be planted after the last threat of frost is over. Zucchini like well-manured, moist soil and can even grow on a compost heap (from personal experience)! Create a mound of soil and plant 4-6 seeds around the mound so the plants will grow next to one another. This will encourage pollination by bees, who can easily fly from one flower to the next.
Zucchini plants come in male and female varieties, although they look identical and have almost identical flowers. However, only the female plant will produce a zucchini, which grows from the base of the female flower itself. Male flowers will grow on a long, slender stalk. When the pollen is transferred from the male to the female flower, the zucchini at the base of the female flower will enlarge as the flower slowly becomes smaller and finally dies off. Some gardeners transfer the pollen from the male to the female flower on the tip of a Q-tip, hoping to ensure a large crop of zucchini fruit, but usually this is not necessary if enough seeds are planted.
For the most flavorful zucchini, harvest when 5-6″ long by cutting them off at the stem. Refrigerate with the short stem intact until ready to use. Be careful to check daily, or a giant zucchini may appear unexpectedly in the garden and most of the flesh will be replaced by seeds! Frequent harvesting will also encourage more female flowers to emerge and in turn this will produce more fruit.
Zucchini leaves are susceptible to fungus, and may turn brownish, but the plant should continue to produce fruit. Slugs and other insects may bore into the stem and cause the leaves to wilt and die. Sprinkling crushed egg shells on the soil may discourage slugs, who don’t like to slide over the shells. Planting zucchini in a different location each year will help to avoid the spread of these diseases to your crop next year.
To cook zucchini, simply cut off the stem and the opposite end and then cut the entire vegetable cross-wise into rounds or lengthwise into sticks or strips.
Image from www.specialtyproduce.com
A famous long, thin, light green squash that is harvested in the summer from southern Italy and Sicily is known as “cucuzza.” Cucuzza (pronounced “goo-gooz” in Sicilian dialect) typically grows from 1 to 3 feet. Unlike a true summer squash, the skin from this squash must be peeled before cooking. There is a well-known Sicilian proverb that states, “Cucinala come vuoi, sempre cucuzza è!” meaning, “However you cook it, it’s still just squash!”
Cucuzza is also used as an endearing term for a young girl in a 1950’s Italian novelty song sung by Louis Prima called, “My Cucuzza.” He sings about the vegetable, “Cucuza grows in Italy down on the farm. It’s something like zucchini flavored with Italian charm… I call my girl cucuzza because she’s as sweet as can be.” To hear the song sung by Louis Prima in it’s entirety, click this My Cucuzza link.
Zucchini with Tomatoes and Oregano
Watch the method in time elapse photography as I cook this dish on my Instagram channel by clicking here:
olive oil, 1 onion, 3 medium-size Zucchini, 6 plum tomatoes, fresh oregano, salt
- Coarsely chop the onion, zucchini and tomatoes. (See the video for the method to chop these vegetables.)
- Pour olive oil into a large frying pan with high sides or a pot large enough to accommodate all the vegetables, heat briefly, and then add the onions and a pinch of salt.
- When the onions have softened, and turned clear, add the zucchini. Cover and let zucchini cook on medium heat to soften, stirring occasionally. Do not let zucchini or onions brown.
- When zucchini ha softened, add the chopped tomatoes and salt to taste with a few grinds of pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat. If needed, add a little water.
- When the tomatoes have softened, add the oregano and cook until the herb has softened.
- When all vegetables have softened, but are not mushy, they are done! The finished vegetable dish should have a little bit of “juice” and can be served in a separate small bowl if wanted.
- Serve with Italian bread to “sop up” the juices.