The history of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family is surprisingly complex, as I recently found. They are one of the first cultivated foods; there is indication they were domesticated as far back as around 15,000 years ago. The Cucurbitaceae family is broken into five main groups, all important to humans for different reasons:
1) the Lagenaria genus, indigenous to Africa, includes bottle gourds (aka calabash), used as a container and musical instrument.
2) the Citrullus genus, also from Africa, includes watermelon and egusi (whose seeds remain an important food in Africa today).
3) the Cucumis genus, is of unknown origin (but likely the Middle East) and includes cucumbers, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon.
4) Luffa is a genus of fibrous gourds, grown in Asia and eaten when immature, or matured and dried on the vine for use as body scrubs (this is where the word “loofa” comes from).
5) and finally, the Cucurbita genus encompasses today’s subject – pumpkins and squash.
As you probably know, the winter squashes we know today – pumpkins, acorn, butternut, and the like – were first domesticated in the New World, and are relatively new additions to other cuisines. But when you look up the origins of other squashes, like zucchini, the results are not so clear. As I dug through recipes for Kousa Mahshi, many would describe this dish as an ancient favorite, as if this delicious stuffed squash was enjoyed in Constantinople a thousand years ago.
In truth, zucchini (and all summer squashes) are simply immature cultivars of the Cucurbita genus, eaten while the rind is still edible. Zucchini in particular was first developed in Northern Italy, and not introduced to the rest of the world until the 1930s – a far cry from the Byzantine Empire!
So in the face of these facts, it’s safe to say that Kousa Mahshi is a relatively new invention, likely a reinvention of the older Sarma/Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) dish common in the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Persian Gulf.
Kousa Mahshi – Stuffed Squash (Gluten-free, Perfect Health Diet)
10 zucchini, marrow squash, or yellow squash, short and fat preferred (about 5 lbs)
1/2 lb ground lamb or beef
1 1/2 cups arborio or other risotto rice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt, more to taste
1/2 tsp black pepper, more to taste
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground coriander
2 pinches ground cloves
2 tsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tsp fresh chopped mint (about 3 leaves)
1 small (15oz) can tomato puree
~ 4 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp olive oil
yogurt to serve
1. Slice the tops from the zucchini; using an apple corer, zucchini corer (manakra), or sharp-tipped vegetable peeler, core the zucchini with 1/4” of flesh on each side, and leaving about 1/2” of flesh at the bottom. Use the cored zucchini flesh in other dishes, such as in omelettes, potato pancakes, or empanadas.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the lamb, rice, garlic, salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, parsley, and mint; mix until uniform. Using your hands, scoop the filling into the zucchini and lightly pack, leaving about ½” of space at the top for the rice to expand. Line the bottom of a wide-bottom stockpot with the zucchini, in layers as needed, firmly packed so that the zucchinis do not move while cooking.
3. Pour the tomato puree into the stockpot, then add enough chicken stock to just cover the zucchinis. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until the meat is cooked through and the rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Using tongs, gently transfer the zucchinis to a rimmed baking sheet; cover with tin foil to keep warm. Increase the stovetop heat to high, and reduce the tomato sauce until thick and splattering, about 10 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching (and splattering). Stir the olive oil into the sauce, then season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Ladle the tomato sauce over the zucchini, then serve with yogurt.