The ‘bottled’ gourd

I was intrigued at a recent farmers market by a sign that read “bottled gourds $1/lb.”

Upon closer examination, I saw a stack of long, cucumber-shaped, light-green vegetables. I inquired of the farmer, who described the gourds as “zucchini-like” and suggested that I peel them and treat them just as I would a summer squash.

I researched a bit before cooking this new vegetable, and learned that bottle gourds are also called calabashes, although they are unrelated to the tree of the same name. They are believed to be indigenous to southern Africa, and are now cultivated all over the world in tropical regions, where they can be grown year-round. They are also grown in temperate climes during the summer months.

Young bottle gourds can be eaten with the skin on, but as they mature the skin becomes tougher so it is better to peel them. In addition to being used as a food source, bottle gourds have been allowed to grow larger, then are dried and used as everything from a container to a helmet to a musical instrument. They have also been used for decorative purposes.

Bottle gourds are low-calorie and deliver small quantities of folates, vitamin C and several B vitamins. They are high in fiber.

My experiment was limited to one bottle gourd, which I served with Mexican braised chicken. To complement this meal, I sautéed the sliced gourd as the farmer suggested and added some garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and lime juice.

I liked the results immensely. My husband was less enthusiastic. He liked the flavor and the preparation, but found the larger pieces “rubbery.” That is easily addressed by cutting the slices uniformly and thinly, which I will do in the future.

Because these have a mild, neutral flavor, you can season them with just about anything — garlic, onion, lemon juice, herbs, curry powder or just salt and pepper.

Mexican sauteed bottle gourds

1 large bottle gourd, approximately 7 inches long

1 tablespoon oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 pinch salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Sprinkle of cayenne pepper

Juice of ½ lime

Peel and slice the bottle gourd. In a skillet, heat the oil and sizzle the garlic, salt and spices. Add the sliced bottle gourd and sauté until cooked, turning regularly, about 6 minutes total. Spritz with lime juice and serve.

Serves 2 to 4

Luffa: It’s not just a sponge

Ever on the lookout for new and exciting produce, I happened upon the luffa at the Asian produce stand at my local farmers market.

The merchant informed me that it was a type of edible gourd, and was very high in antioxidants. Further research informed me that the luffa is also high in folates and fiber, and is a good source of vitamin A, as well as thiamin, niacin, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and manganese.

And yes, further research revealed that this cucumber-esque vegetable that I brought home was a baby version of the bath sponge that was touted on the 1970s version of infomercials to remove cellulite. Once the gourd grows beyond a certain point, the flesh becomes spongy and fibrous and more or less inedible, but the young version is soft and mild, and behaves pretty much like a zucchini when cooked.

Because the plant originates in the East, most recipes for luffa were Asian — featuring ginger, coconut milk, sesame and other items in that flavor profile. I stayed in that lane and created this simple sauté, which was quite tasty, with tenderloin and a salad.

Admittedly, most anything sautéed in ginger, garlic and chili is delicious to me, but this vegetable absorbed the flavors well and had the benefit of being something totally new and different, yet oddly familiar.

Luffa for two

1 luffa, about 10 inches long, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pinch salt

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

¼ teaspoon chile flakes (or to taste)

¼ cup vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water

In a medium-sized skillet, heat the oil, salt, ginger, garlic and chile until sizzling and fragrant. Add luffa and stir to coat. Saute, stirring frequently for about 2 minutes. Add broth and cook, uncovered, for about 2 minutes until done.

Serves 2 JN

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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