Exotic Indian Vegetables

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This past winter I was fortunate enough to spent three months in India at a meditation center. Although I went for some R and R, I found that once friends at the meditation center knew of my background in horticulture, they were eager to ask questions. A nice thing about gardening is its universal interest; only the plants and climate change.

I particularly liked spending time with my friend Jack. He’s a Canadian who has lived and meditated in the Himalayas for more than 20 years and is the local gardening expert and resident astrologer. With his tall stature, long beard and hair, Jack looks like Merlin from the Lord of the Rings. He’s equally eccentric, religiously consulting his astrological charts to decide when to plant his organic vegetable gardens. He’s as likely to launch into an expose on cauliflower pollination as he is on Tibetan paintings (another of his interests). I had lunch with Jack on this visit and I tried two new (to
me) vegetables from his garden: bitter melon and fenugreek leaves.

Bitter melon, or kerala, as the Indians call it, is a long rambling vine that needs a trellis for support. The vines produce beautiful yellow flowers and 6 to 8 inch long cucumber-shaped, warty fruits. Grown as you would regular melons, the fruits form 40 to 50 days after seeding and are best picked while still young and green. Cooking kerala does take some care. If you don’t get it right, you’ll end up with bitter tasting mush.

Enter Jack. In his usual inquisitive way, he has experimented with cooking kerala and has a method that removes much of the bitterness while preserving the exotic flavor and texture. Jack slices the fruits in half and removes the seeds. He dices the kerala into 1 to 2 inch chunks and boils it in water with 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar added. Once tender, but not mushy, Jack drains the water, places the chunks in cheesecloth, squeezes out the excess moisture – and along with it – most of the bitterness. Then he saut¿es the kerala with ginger and red pepper, adding a touch of his own herbal salt. The flavor was great. The sweetness of the pepper complimented the slight bitterness of the kerala and the texture was soft, yet not mushy.

The second new crop is "mettee" or fenugreek leaves. Many Indian recipes call for fenugreek seeds, but the leaves taste great cooked and eaten as well. Fenugreek is a cool season crop and the 1 to 2 foot tall clover-like plant is ready to harvest 60 days after seeding. Sauteed with potatoes, salt and a little curry powder, this dish has a nutty flavor with a slight bitter taste.

Always the experimenter, I brought back seeds of mettee and kerala to try in my garden. The mettee germinated well and is growing strong. The kerala is growing slower, but with the warm summer weather and hopefully a hot summer, it should take off. It’s great having a little of India, and Jack, in my garden this summer.

This is Charlie Nardozzi from Hinesburg.

Charlie Nardozzi is an all-around gardening expert with a special fondness for tomatoes and roses.

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