Recipe rules for Karela stuffed with ricotta and peas by Anita Jaisinghani

Karela, the dreaded bitter melon of my childhood, was a favorite of my parents – my father, a deeply disciplined man, knew about the health benefits of the fruit, but at the time my brothers and I didn’t care.

Fast forward to my adult years, I began to see the light. Once balanced and tempered with other seasonings, bitter melon turns into a thing of beauty. It can be chopped up – peels, seeds and all – and made into sabzi, which is basically a cooked vegetable, with caramelized onions, ginger, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. A touch of cardamom or cinnamon can also offset the bitterness.

Roasted karelas can be glazed with maple and chili and stuffed with all sorts of toppings, from cheese, potato and beans to mashed spinach. The seeds inside can be chopped and cooked with the filling. Chopped up and added to lentil stews and braised potatoes, the zest works particularly well in roti dough, which simply swallows the bitter flavor.

I can now safely say that karela is one of my favorite vegetables to experiment with. Naturally bitter foods are also revered in Ayurveda, bringing essential balance to salty, sweet, sour, pungent and astringent flavors. Bitter melons are in season right now in Texas and Plant It Forward Farm will have plenty of them in the next few weeks, so go grab some.

Karela stuffed with ricotta and peas

1 pound bitter melons (about 8-10 meager)
1/2 cup sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon of sea salt

Filling:
4 more tablespoons of ghee
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon green cardamom pods, crushed
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons pureed ginger
1 serrano pepper, minced
1 cup green peas
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup melting cheese such as cheddar or Swiss

2 to 3 tablespoons of honey or maple syrup
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 lemon

Directions: Peel the bitter melons, reserving the skin for another use (see note).

Slice the melons down the middle, remove the seeds and set aside. Repeat this operation with all the melons. Soak them in a brine made from 2 cups of water, sugar, lemon juice and salt. Refrigerate 4 to 6 hours or overnight. Drain.

To make the stuffing, in a medium skillet over high heat, heat 2-3 tablespoons ghee and pop the coriander seeds. Immediately add the cardamom seeds, minced onion and karela seeds. Reduce heat, cover and braise for 5-8 minutes or until onions are translucent and seeds have softened. Add the ginger puree, serrano, peas and salt and cook for another minute, then turn off the heat. Leave this mixture to cool for 15 to 20 minutes, then mix with the 2 cheeses. Stuff each karela with the filling. At this point, the karela can be refrigerated for 2-3 days until ready to serve.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the stuffed melons cut side up on a small baking dish. Drizzle with the remaining ghee and roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese looks like it has melted and the melons are bright green and cooked through.

Drizzle with honey, more ghee if desired and serve with fresh lemons and plain yogurt.

Notes and variants
• Karela bark can be added to roti or bread dough – wheat reduces bitterness.
• If there is any topping left, spread it on hot breakfast toast or put it in a scrambled egg mixture.
• To crush cardamom seeds, use a mortar and pestle or crush them with a rolling pin.

For 4 to 6 people

By Anita Jaisinghani