Squash Sponge Luffa
The luffas are a totally different gourd species (Luffa) than the lagenarias. The luffa (sometimes spelled "loofa") originated in Asia and has as about as many names as there are seed catalogs. One of its most common names is "vegetable sponge" because the skeleton of this gourd is the "luffa sponge" you can buy from your health-food store. It's also known as "towel gourd" or "dishcloth gourd." Asian specialty catalogs may use its Chinese names.
Luffa sponges can be used as bathing sponges, boat or kitchen scrubbers, filters, insulation, and packing material. You can use them to make baskets, mats, and slippers. Luffa is also edible!—unlike the lagenarias. In fact, in much of the tropical world, luffas are grown not only for their summer squash-type fruits and the spongy skeletons of mature fruits left to dry on the vine but also for their edible flowers, leaves, and seeds!
Luffa Varieties: There are 2 basic kinds of luffa: "ridged" and "smooth." You can tell their Seeds apart by looking, because the seeds of ridged luffa are wrinkled and winged. The seeds of smooth luffa are smooth and wingless. Ridged Luffá. Its Latin name is Luffa acutangula. Its Chinese name is "Sze Kwa." Some call ridged luffa "Chinese okra" because each fruit resembles a large, long, dark green, club-shaped (wider at one end) okra. It's also known as "angled luffa" because of its odd, S-curved shape. Ridged luffa grows wild in Indonesia and India. In most of Asia, luffa is grown for both food and sponges. At full maturity, they're about a foot long. Ridged or "angled" luffas grow long and slender, with leathery furrows down their length. To prepare them for eating, cut those long ridges off the sides, since they're too stiff to eat.
Smooth Luffa. Its Latin name is Luffa aegyptiaca. But its scientific name is unclear because it's also been called L. cylindrica, L. macrocarpa, and L. marylandica. The fruits are significantly bigger than the ridged kind. They're light green and smooth-skinned, and they're straight cylinders rather than S curves.
Planting and Growing: Luffas are grown much like lagenarias. Allowed a long growing season, they are easy to grow and produce as prolifically as zucchini. You can order luffa seed from Exotica, Gurney, Hudson, Johnny's, Nichols, Redwood City, Shumway, and Thompson & Morgan.
Luffa seeds have unusually hard outer coats and thus are slow to germinate. It helps to start by soaking them at least 12 hours. If you plant them indoors, keep the pot in a dark place in a warm room. Even so, figure on waiting several weeks before seeing a sprout. As soon as the sprout shows, transfer the pot to a situation with good light. At the 2-inch point, cull the weaker-looking plant in a pot. At 3 inches, it's ready to be transplanted outdoors (plant in the evening). It becomes an attractive plant with yellow flowers. harvesting: Gather fruits when young and tender—no more than 6 inches long. Longer, older luffa rapidly develops a stringy quality. Luffa has a mild flavor and lots of vitamin B complex.
Recipe Ideas. You can substitute raw luffas in any recipe that calls for raw cucumbers. Or substitute cooked luffas in any recipe for cooked summer squash or okra. Or steam to cook and then add sugar, vinegar, sesame oil, and ginger to flavor. Or cut into strips and saute with other slivered or chopped Chinese vegetables in a little hot sesame oil. Or cut in half the long way; partly scoop out inside; stuff with a mixture of onions, cooked rice, marjoram, and thyme; and bake 40 minutes at 350°E Or make into a soup by cooking chopped luffa together with sliced shiitake mushrooms, fresh peas, sliced bamboo, or other vegetables. Or cook cut-up chunks of luffa, tomato, onion, and basil in a casserole (sprinkle cheese on top). Or boil, puree, season with a bit of soy sauce, and serve. Or make a Chinese-style stew: Add luffa and other Asian veggies to a cooked pork soup, thicken the broth, and serve. The Japanese prepare chunks of luffa tempura-style.
Luffa Greens and Flowers. You can gather luffa leaves any time and use them raw in salads or cook them like spinach. Luffa bears large, yellow flowers. The plant will bear more fruit if you pick the first several flowers. Substitute them in any recipe for dandelion blossoms! Luffa Sponges. To get the sponges, you really need to live in a southern zone or have the plants in a greenhouse. First you let the luffas grow past eating size, on to complete maturity on the vine. They will get from 1 to 2 feet long before they quit growing and will be several pounds in weight. To reap the very best sponges, let them stay undisturbed on the vines, where they will first grow to that fully mature size, then ripen, and then dry. If possible, let them dry there until the stem turns yellow and the skin gets dry, paper-thin, and faded in color. Then peel them like an orange. Don't wait until they are fully yellow to peel. Greener skin means a more tender sponge. Yellower skin means a wiry, harsh sponge. (You can soften sponges by boiling them in water 5 minutes.)
When the time comes to harvest the luffas, cut them away from their vine using a keen-edged blade. Dry at least 10 days more, or until their outsides have gotten hard and turned to a brown color. Now open the big end of the luffa. Shake out all its seeds. Get rid of any remaining outer skin, strings, or seeds and rinse out the center of it. Immerse the luffa sponge in water and leave it there 12 hours. Now peel off the outside layer. Dry in the shade. If you need white sponges for some reason, soak your dried sponges for 30 minutes in water that has a little bleach added.
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