Lucky me! Just when it’s time to dream up something creative to do with squash, what appears at the farmers market? Bottle gourd! The pile of lanky, pale green gourds drew some quizzical looks here in Washington, but I recognized them immediately from my time in India. Bottle gourd is a common vegetable curry on the Subcontinent, where it’s known as lauki, doodhi and a bunch of other names, depending on where you are.
If you are familiar with this skinny gourd with lovely green skin, you may know it by its Italian name, cucuzza. Although the Italian versions can be on the super-slender side, the gourds can also be quite hefty, like a baseball bat. The slinky pair I picked out at the market were nearly as long as my arm. They must be peeled before eating and have a very mild flavor, not unlike summer squash.
OK, so I’ve found a gourd that will be new to many of you. But given that I’m responsible for the sweet side of this sweet/savory/spin equation, what on earth am I going to do with it?
Luckily, a recent stop for a delicious Indian meal in New York had reminded me that in India, vegetables are frequently used in sweets, just as unripe fruits, like green bananas and papayas, are often treated like vegetables. You can find puddings made of cabbage (no, really, I mean it), beets and carrots, and countless types of sweets made from legumes of all kinds.
So, standing at the market, waxing nostalgic about my days in the desert, I didn’t even bother going home to do some Googling. I was not leaving that market without my long-lost lauki, and I felt pretty damn confident I would find a sweet recipe to use it in.
Turns out it was a safe bet. I found several different options: barfi, which is kind of like fudge and made with milk; halwa, essentially ground nuts, grains, veggies or fruits mixed with an often-ungodly amount of sugar and ghee; and, my personal favorite, kheer, also known as payasam. Kheer is best known to Americans as the Indian version of rice pudding, but it can be made with all sorts of things, from vermicelli to nuts to carrots to, naturally … bottle gourd!
I’ll be honest, though: while this dessert, flavored with cardamom and saffron, is quite simple, making it is not for the impatient. Kheer is generally much more watery than American puddings, which tend to be custard-like. Even so, getting milk to thicken up — even with some help from evaporated and condensed milk — takes a long time on the stove (how do I keep getting myself into these time-sucking pudding projects, anyhow?).
That said, lauki kheer is delicious. In fact, the sweet milk mixture alone is so good, it really doesn’t even need the gourd, except to give the liquid some heft — and you some sense of satisfaction that you’re eating vegetables for dessert.
1/2 pound bottle gourd
3 cups milk (whole is best)
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon ghee or butter
10 or so strands of saffron
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon almond extract or rose water
Pistachio or almonds, ground, for garnish
Pour the milk and condensed milk into a thick-bottomed sauce pan and heat on medium. Simmer without a lid, stirring occasionally to scrape the bottom of the pan, for 40 minutes to an hour, until it thickens somewhat.
Meanwhile, peel the gourd, then slit in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a spoon (as you would cucumbers). Grate it with a box grater, then squeeze out as much water as possible.
Heat the ghee on medium heat and, when hot, fry the grated gourd until it’s cooked; about 5 minutes.
Add the gourd to the milk along with the saffron, cardamom and extract or rose water, and continue simmering until it has a consistency you like. Taste for sweetness and add some sugar if you like. Keep in mind this will not be like a custard or pudding — it will be thinner than condensed milk, and helped by the heft of the grated gourd. If you’ve ever had kheer (made with rice) at an Indian restaurant, that’s pretty much what you’re going for.
Top with grated pistachio and enjoy hot or cold! Makes about four servings.