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deconstructing

DISH: A weekly serving of food news and views

Compiled by Janet K. Keeler from staff and wire reports

explanations from the inside out

cucuzza

The Italian word is cucuzza (kuh-KOOZ-ah), which can mean several kinds of squash in the old country. In the United States, cucuzza refers to one rather peculiar vegetable.

Cucuzza is a light green ball bat about 15 inches long, but sometimes it's longer and wildly curved, like this one, which sold for $2.65 at Garden of Eat'n in Tampa (3401 West Shore Blvd. S; 813-835-8300).

It has the hard shell of a gourd, the seeds of a cucumber and the taste of a summer squash.

To cook it, you have to peel the shell (you may need to cut it into sections first). Cut into cubes or strips, it can be cooked on its own or in stews, soups or tomato sauce. Cooked, cucuzza holds its shape rather like eggplant. It has 20 calories per half-cup.

Wishnatzki Farms of Plant City is the local commercial grower. It has one Manatee County field growing cucuzza, which is harvested from April through mid June and again in October and November. Most of Wishnatzki's supply goes to Northeastern cities with large Italian communities, principally Boston.

In season, the vegetables are sometimes found in Tampa Bay area groceries such as Castellano & Pizzo (4200 Henderson Blvd., Tampa; 813-289-5275) and independent produce stands.

The toughest part of selling cucuzza may be packing them. Wishnatzki uses 36-inch boxes, but it's difficult to fit the curved plants in. "When they get too twisty, we just have to leave them on the vine," sales manager Chuck Hollenkamp says.

Cucuzzas grow in the greatest quantity in Louisiana, where the crop is just coming in and will be harvested all summer, according to Melissa's, a California distributor of gourmet and specialty produce.

_ CHRIS SHERMAN, Times food critic

cooking class

When a recipe calls for lining a baking pan with parchment paper, you can grease the pan instead, but we suggest that you buy a roll anyway. It's inexpensive and sold in most grocery stores. Parchment paper helps you remove baked goods from pans without crumbling, and it prevents cookies and other items from browning too much on the bottom. The latter is especially useful if your baking sheets are black or darkened from use.

constant comment

"I remember his showing me how to eat a peach by building a little white mountain of sugar and then dipping the peach into it." _ American writer Mary McCarthy (1912-1989)

this web site cooks

www.vodkaphiles.com

This site, where "vodka lovers of the world unite," comes with a warning: "You must be 21 years of age or older to visit this site." We're not sure how that's enforced, but we are pretty sure that you can't get drunk on 600 years of vodka history alone. Russian Life magazine sponsors the site, which is mostly about Russian vodka, including rankings. France's Grey Goose and Russia's Cristall get the highest marks.

easy fixes

The International Food Information Council Foundation suggests that just a 100-calorie-a-day adjustment along with increased physical activity can go a long way toward helping Americans keep their weight down. Some suggestions:

+ Swap an 8-ounce regular soft drink for a diet soft drink.

+ Drink 2 cups of fat-free milk instead of 2 cups of whole milk.

+ Split a small bag of fries with a friend.

+ Slice a typical piece of apple pie about one-third smaller.

+ Eat five fewer potato chips and walk for six minutes.

food books in focus

A huge range of specialized books that focus on cooking with specific appliances has been published in the past year. Here is a sampling:

+ Process This! by Jean Anderson (Morrow, 2002, $27.50). Tips and recipes for food processors.

+ The Pressure Cooker Gourmet by Victoria Wise (Harvard Common Press, 2003, $24.95).

+ The Ultimate Rice Cooker by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $15.95 paperback).

+ The Ultimate Rotisserie Cookbook by Diane Phillips (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $17.95 paperback).

+ The Best Convection Oven Cookbook by Linda Stephen (Robert Rose, 2003, $18.95 paperback).

make it spicy

The Chesapeake Bay meets the bayou with McCormick & Co.'s new blackened flavor Old Bay seasoning. The new Old Bay features a combination of spices, including red and black pepper, paprika and thyme, that lets Cajun food lovers prepare their blackened dishes at home. The seasoning, available in grocery stores, sells for $1.99 for a 1.9-ounce bottle.

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