Cucuzza is probably one of the lightest and most favorable side dishes served at home in New Orleans, regardless of whether you happen to be Italian or not. And what's so nice about it is that essentially it goes with almost everything. Cucuzza is simple to prepare, readily re-heatable, and easily done in advance. Be warned, though, that if you fix this once you'll be asked to fix it again and again.

1 pound acini pepe pasta

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 cups minced onions

6 cloves minced garlic

1 can diced tomatoes with liquid (303)

1 cup canned chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon Frank Davis Sicilian Seasoning

3/4 teaspoon dry basil (or 3-4 fresh basil leaves, chopped)

2-3 cucuzza, peeled and medium diced

2 pounds raw Louisiana shrimp, peeled, deveined, and chopped

Kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons freshly minced parsley

3/4 cup thinly sliced green onion bottoms

Grated Parmesan cheese to taste for garnish

Before you begin preparing the cucuzza take a 3-quart stockpot and boil the pasta only until it becomes al dente. Then drain it thoroughly in a fine-mesh colander and set it aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a 5-quart, non-stick Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, heat the oil to medium high, drop in the onions and garlic, and saute them only until the onions turn clear (do not let the onions caramelize and do not let the garlic burn).

Next, toss the tomatoes into the pot along with the chicken stock, bay leaves, Sicilian seasoning, and basil. Then stir everything together well, cover the pot, and simmer the mixture over low heat for about 15 minutes.

While the tomato stock is cooking, take a sharp paring knife and strip the green skin from the outside of the cucuzza. Then cut the pure white pulp into 1-inch dice (you want to end up with 4 to 6 cups). When the tomato stock is ready, drop the pulp pieces into the stock, stir everything together well, cover the pot once more, and cook the cucuzza over medium-high heat until it softens (which should take no more than 20 to 30 minutes).

One of the last steps in preparing this recipe is to build the shrimp courtbouillion. When the cucuzza pieces are tender, stir the peeled shrimp into the pot and allow them to cook--uncovered this time!--for about 5 minutes or until they turn pink. Then quickly drop in the cooked pasta, cover the pot again, and let the dish simmer once more for about 5 minutes to come to full heat. All that's left is to season it with the salt and the peppers.

When you're ready to eat, quickly stir in the parsley and the green onion bottoms and serve the cucuzza piping hot in soup bowls (either as an entree or as a separate side dish), generously topped with freshly-grated Parmesan cheese.


Chef's Notes:

1--A cucuzza is a long Italian squash with a delicate sweet taste that is rich in vitamin C and high in nutritional fiber. It cooks easily without a lot of added moisture.

2--If you can't find cucuzza locally for this dish, you can substitute mirliton or zucchini instead. But fresh cucuzza can be mail-ordered from the Cordoro Cucuzza Plantation in Ruston, Louisiana, the biggest cucuzza farm in existence

3-- In Creole tomato season, instead of using canned diced tomatoes, use Creoles (or even fresh ripe Roma tomatoes) to make this recipe. The fresh tomato flavor is so intense it brings the total taste of the dish to a whole new height! Oh--here's a hint: Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for about a minute or two. Then when the skin shows signs of splitting, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon, allow them to come to room temperature, peel them, chop them, and cook them down almost until they disintegrate to create the rich, flavorful base for this recipe.