Out of Your Gourd!
It's that time of year when visions of Halloween conjure up all kinds of ghoulish-looking gourds! While they are traditional decor at Halloween and Thanksgiving, gourds aren't just for decoration. Gourds date back to 2200 B.C., making them among the oldest cultivated plants in history. They have been used as dippers or containers for grain storage, and other types are edible when young and tender.
The term "gourd" is most correctly applied to several species of hard-shelled members of the vine crops known as cucurbits. Today, gourds can still be used as functional tools, such as birdhouses, dippers , lanterns and storage bins. Although each gourd may have its own characteristics, in general, most are ready to harvest when the rinds are firm and the stem of the plant begins to turn brown and dry. Gourds should be harvested when they are fully mature but before frost.
After harvest, gourds should be "cured" or air-dried prior to processing. First, wash them with warm, soapy water and then place on layers of newspaper to dry for about a week. During this time, the outer skin hardens and surface color sets. Replace the newspaper with fresh sheets, and allow the gourds to dry for an additional 3-4 weeks in a warm, dry, dark area, such as a closet or under a bed.
Decorative gourds can be displayed in their natural state for 3-4 months. Applying wax, shellac or varnish can prolong shelf life for several more months and will lend a shiny coat to the exterior.
The luffa gourd, also known as loofah , the vegetable sponge, or dishrag gourd, is handled a bit different than other gourds.
Young fruits of a few inches can actually be harvested for eating and are popular in oriental cooking. However, once the fruit enlarge, tough fibers are produced throughout the pulp. It is these fibers that form the sponge. Luffa requires a long growing season, and fruit usually need to be left on the vines until killing frost takes the plants. The longer they mature on the vine, the sturdier the sponge. But they do not need to be left on the vine until completely mature.
Prepare the sponge by peeling the outer layers of tissue away (no small task!) to reveal the inner fibrous mass. Use one of the following pre-treatments to soften the outer rind, making the sponge easier to peel.
1. Soak the gourd in a tub of water until the outer covering softens.
2. Boil the gourds in water for about 15 minutes, allow to cool, then peel. Finding a kettle large enough to accommodate the entire sponge is not practical, but fruit can be cut in half or quarters.
3. Freeze the gourd for 2 hours, then thaw and peel.
4. Microwave the sponge for 5-10 minutes on high power. Cutting the sponge in half will speed processing and make it easier to fit in the oven.
The plant's seeds are within the fibers of the sponge and must be removed by shaking and pulling them out with your fingers. Then, wash the sponge in mild, soapy water and rinse several times to remove soap residue. Allow the sponge to dry to a dull beige color. If a whiter sponge is desired, soak it in a solution of household bleach and water.
The finished sponge can be used as a bath sponge, backscratcher, dishrag or scouring pad. A sponge can last for years, depending on how it is used. Don't be afraid to put it to hard work; you can always grow more next year!