Chayote: Squash of Many Names Grows In Fame

By Rosalie E. Leposky

Some years ago I was exploring the French Market in New Orleans with a friend, Sandra Dartus, executive director of the French Quarter Festivals. She was looking for a vegetable she wanted to share with me, but it wasn't on sale that day. Mirliton, she called it. "It's pear-shaped. We bake it and stuff it," she explained. I couldn't imagine what it was.

A quick visit to the French Quarter A & P's produce department disclosed that Sandra's mystery vegetable was none other than chayote, an old favorite I like to peel, chop, and add to salads and stir-fry dishes.

This plump, sweet vegetable has many names. In most of the United States it is sold as chayote. The Aztecs, who domesticated it, called it chayotl. It is christophine or brionne in much of the West Indies, chochoute in Madagascar and Polynesia, xuxu in Brazil, and chocho, custard marrow, pepinella, and vegetable pear in various other parts of the world.

Not bad for a smallish squash with a thin green skin, crunchy white flesh, and edible seed.

Thanks to modern vegetable-distribution technology, chayote is now available practically all year in U.S. supermarkets and is winning new adherents. Most of the U.S. supply comes from the southern and western states, Mexico, and Central America.

Once you've bought a chayote, must you peel it as I do?  Peeling is not necessary unless the chayote is grown in the desert or in Mexico, or the vegetable is old. Then the skin may be bitter. Cut a small piece and taste the skin before you peel the whole squash -- and if you peel, do it under water. Otherwise you'll get the chayote's sticky sap on your fingers.

Here's a stuffed mirliton recipe from Sandra Dartus's mother, Janice Savoye. You can cook the stuffing and freeze it in the mirliton skin or in a casserole pan for use as a side dish at any time of year.

"At Thanksgiving my mother serves stuffed mirliton as a side vegetable dish with our traditional dinner," Sandra says. "During one French Quarter Festival, Coop's restaurant sold a pickled mirliton and crawfish salad and this year Tujague's is selling mirliton stuffed with shrimp and crab meat."

Janice Savoye's Stuffed Mirliton

1/2 stick butter 1 teaspoon salt
1 large onion 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cloves of garlic 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup celery 1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup bell pepper 1 pound coarsely chopped shrimp
1 teaspoon parsley 1 pound crab meat
1/4 teaspoon thyme 1 cup bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon rosemary 6 to 8 mirlitons

Cut mirlitons in half and boil until a fork will pierce them all the way through. Remove from water and set aside to cool.

When they are cool, remove the center seed. Gently scrape out the pulp with a spoon, being careful not to break the outer skin. Chop the pulp very fine.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven and sautée bell pepper, celery, garlic and onion for five minutes. Add more butter if needed. To the sautéed vegetables, add the mirliton pulp, then stir constantly for an additional 15 minutes. Note:"At this stage, it is ok if the mixture appears watery," says Mrs. Savoye.

Add and cook until they turn pink. Then add the crab meat and spices. Thoroughly blend the mixture, then stir in most of the bread crumbs, a little at a time. (Hold back some of the bread crumbs for the top of the mirlitons.) To this fairly dry stuffing mixture, add the beaten egg and mix thoroughly.

Stuff the stuffing into the mirliton shells, sprinkle the tops with the remainder of the bread crumbs, and put about a teaspoon of butter on each stuffed mirliton half. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until the tops are toasted.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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