September 16, 2020
A common staple in my kitchen — and one I have been trying to bring attention to for years — is the incredible bitter melon, aka karela.
For the most part, folks hear the word “bitter” and shy away. I understand. For years as a kid, I did, too. In fact, I have memories of sitting at the dinner table trying to eat it with tears streaming down my eyes as my parents lectured me on why it was a necessary part of our diet. As an adult, I have come to love it, not just for its tremendous capacity to cleanse our blood sugar and keeping our skin glowing but also for its flavor.
Karela holds up well to spices and pairs beautifully with naturally sweet vegetables such as butternut squash, sweet potato or corn. However, cooking it can be tricky if the bitterness is not balanced with a brine or a marinade. Don’t be afraid to use a generous amount of olive oil or another fat to bring out the flavor of this stuffed karela.
1 pound (5 to 6) bitter melons
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, divided
2 tablespoons cane sugar
Juice of one lemon
1/4 cup olive oil, divided, plus additional for serving
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon unpeeled grated ginger
Scant cup mashed cooked sweet potato
Few mint sprigs
1/4 cup sesame seeds
Half of a lemon for serving
Serves 3 to 4
Using a peeler, peel the bitter melons, reserving the peel for another use. Slice lengthwise and remove the inside seeds. Mince the seeds and set aside.
Prepare brine by combining 4 cups of water with 1 tablespoon salt, sugar, and lemon juice. Immerse the peeled melons in the brine and refrigerate overnight or set aside at room temperature for about 4 hours — this will temper the bitterness. Discard the brine and let the melons dry out on paper towels.
To prepare the stuffing, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and pop the coriander seeds. (Be careful not to burn them; if they do burn, discard and start again.) Immediately add the minced melon seeds and onion.
Cook on medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently until the seeds are soft and the onions are wilted and slightly golden brown. If the onions appear to be sticking to the pan or burning, add a few tablespoons of water or white wine to deglaze the pan.
Turn the heat off and add the chili powder, grated ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix this with the mashed sweet potato and roughly 1 tablespoon of minced mint leaves.
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Spread the sesame seeds onto a plate. Rub the drained melons in the remaining olive oil. Stuff generously each melon with the sweet potato mix, then roll each melon in the sesame seeds to coat the outside. Place all the melons on a baking sheet, cut side up. Cover the pan with foil and place in the preheated oven.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes then take the foil off and continue baking them for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the karela is cooked through.
To serve, squeeze fresh lemon juice on top, drizzle more olive oil if needed, garnish with mint leaves, and serve.
To cook sweet potatoes, boil or roast them in the oven until soft and cooked through.
Bitter melon peel, which is used as medicine by Ayurvedic practitioners, can be added to bread doughs or batters and tastes surprisingly mild.
Add goat cheese to the sweet potato mix before baking it for added flavor.
If using larger Chinese bitter melons, which have the same flavor as the Indian ones, adjust baking time for longer until the melon is cooked through.
Coconut oil, sesame oil, or butter also work well with bitter melons.
December 02, 2022