Rainy and cold, it’s been a terrible summer for my tomato plants though the garden is one of my favourite parts of the season. I derive a little joy and pride from anything we can manage to grow on our small plot. I also like trying out a few “experiments” or new vegetables. Last year, we had some colourful tomatoes. This year, we’re trying to grow long, Sicilian zucchini, commonly known as tromboncino. These large vines grow quickly (I measured up to 3 inches a day!), latching on to anything in their path. They hold pale green zucchini that can grow to three feet or more, dangling just above the ground. If you are ever in a neighbourhood of Italians, you’ll see these zucchini swinging from trellises, clothes lines or trees.
My husband grew up shadowing his grandfather in his garden, filled with tromboncino, and had always wanted to give the plant a try. My mom found some seeds and presented my husband with three plants in the spring. We planted all three and strung a rope from the fence to our house, guiding the zucchini along. The vines have started to weigh down the rope and we search desperately for zucchini every morning. So far we have a bulky plant and nothing to eat from it.
But that all changed a few days ago, both problems being solved with one solution. Recently my husband’s Sicilian Nonna visited our home and she looking upon our experiment with glee. Laughing at our sagging rope holding up the vines she had two things to say right away: first, we need to cut off some leaves and vines, the plant is too heavy and second, those tenerumi make a great pasta!
I had to ask for an explanation of “tenerumi” – certainly she didn’t mean the actual vegetables, the few zucchini that sprouted are only a few inches long. No, tenerumi are the offshoots of the main vine that stretch out, with young leaves at the tips and curly tendrils trying to grasp on to anything nearby. I’ve been pulling these shoots and tendrils back from the fence as they keep trying to make an escape for my neighbour’s yard and guide them in the right direction. The wisdom I gained from that Nonna visit was this: cutting off the tenerumi focuses the growth on the main lines of the plant (so they’ll grow big zucchini!), but also they are a delicacy to eat. Some even say they taste better than the zucchinis themselves.
And so it came to be that that very night, after some delicate pruning of the zucchini plant, tenerumi pasta graced our dinner table. The dish has quite a bit of broth, but a fresh and light taste, that doesn’t really taste like zucchini. You can easily replace the tenerumi with swiss chard or spinach, or even add extra other greens to the dish. Since I have a lot of tenerumi to go through, I’ll be making this a few times. Fingers crossed that we get some actual zucchini out of this experiment eventually!
250-300g pasta (for four people)
1 large onion
1 large or 2 medium potatoes
4 cups chopped tenerumi
1 cup peel tomatoes
Parmigiano Reggiano for sprinkling
Cut off approximately 10-12 tenerumi from your zucchini plant. Using a knife, cut off all the curly small tendrils. You’ll also want to cut off the harder base of the shoot: to do this, slide your knife through the vine every half inch until you find the point where it becomes tender and easy to cut through (you get no resistance). Discard the harder part of the vine. Any leaves on the tender remaining area can be eaten as well.
Wash the tenerumi thoroughly in water. When the shoots are very fresh, your water might froth up a bit. Once rinsed, chop into one-inch pieces, including the leaves. Peel and roughly chop the onion. Wash, peel and cube the potato.
In a small pan with one tablespoon of olive oil, saute the onions until translucent. At the same time, fill a large pot with approximately 3 to 4 inches of water and put it on high heat.
Once the onions are cooked, add the peeled tomatoes to them and simmer, stirring often, until the tomatoes break down. If this mixture becomes too dry and begins to stick to the bottom of your pan, add some water from the boiling pot, about half a cup at a time, to keep it loose and bubbling.
Once the pot of water comes to a boil, add salt to taste and add the potatoes. Allow the potatoes to boil for three to five minutes, then add in the tenerumi to the water. Once the water comes back up to a boil, add in the pasta and cook until al dente.
When the pasta is ready, don’t drain it! You want to keep all that broth created by the potatoes, pasta and tenerumi. But you’ll need to make a decision about just how soupy you want your dish to be. You can remove some of the water with a cup or keep it all to have your pasta in a broth. Add in the tomato and onion mixture and stir well.
Dish into bowls and top with a drizzle of olive oil and, if desired, grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.