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One in a Mirliton

With its rigid-to-knobby, fluorescent-green skin and thick, pear-shaped body, the mirliton has wrapped itself around the hearts of local for generations as deftly as it wraps its vines along chain-link fencerows and backyard arbors, becoming the de facto favorite local squash simply by, well, always hanging around on the vine.

“Mirliton is a pedestrian vegetable,” laughs Dr. Lance Hill, founder of the Mirliton.org project, which supports education and research about Louisiana’s heirloom mirlitons as well as (among other things) the “mirliton classifieds,” where growers can swap mirliton seeds, seedlings and full-grown plants.

It’s more commonly known as “chayote” across Mexico and Central America; using the term “mirliton” is unique to mostly South Louisiana and Haiti. Spotting mirliton hanging willy-nilly everywhere around town has become significantly less common over the past couple of decades, due in large part to environmental challenges (Hurricane Katrina practically wiped out New Orleans’ crop in 2005) and the drum of development (mirlitons don’t grow as well in fill dirt).

But with major efforts to bring back local varietals, neighborhood festivals that have the  vegetable as their theme (like the over 25-year run of the Bywater Mirliton Festival), and chefs, including John Folse, embracing the ingredient with open arms, the mirliton is now poised to be revered as the kind of ingredient that’s versatile, considerate of other ingredients, and equally adept in high-end cuisine or home cooking.

“Mirliton has had a kind of hapless life up until now,” says Hill. “In France, there’s actually a cartoon figure from 40 or 50 years ago called Mr. Mirliton, who’s a real doofus. In Brazil, to call someone a “chocho” [shu-shu], which is their word for mirliton, means you’re insipid, flavorless. That’s a bad rap for the mirliton, because it’s not true. First of all, it’s not flavorless. If it’s flavorless, then you’re going to have to say, ‘Cucumbers have no flavor.’ Mirlitons have plenty of flavor; most dishes just don’t tap into it.”

Hill notes that, both inside and outside of traditional Creole and Cajun preparations, mirliton is often treated as an extender ingredient thanks to its inherent starchiness: meant to make a dish heartier, thicker or meatier (without, obviously, adding the meat). But it doesn’t have to only be that way. Finding fresh ways to cook with unique, local-favorite ingredients provides an avenue toward greater kitchen exploration and — maybe through a little trial and error — some really delicious discoveries.

Using the funky, underrated mirliton as an example, here are a few ways to approach cooking with a fruit or vegetable you might not be all that familiar with or one you’d like to know more about — just in time for your discoveries to hit the holiday table.

Get Basic
In order to really cook intuitively with a piece of produce, you have to know the nitty-gritty about it: how to choose a quality version, how to clean it, how to peel it (or if you even need to peel it), how to slice it, what parts are edible and what parts aren’t (never discount roots or leaves!) and, of course, how it tastes.

In her book Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, Sara Roahen describes the flavor of the mirliton elegantly: “A raw mirliton crunches like a potato; it tastes like very green cucumber, and a little like zucchini. Sautéed, it tastes like starchy apples; boiled and fried, its translucent green flesh suggests what a honeydew melon would look, feel, and taste like if honeydew melon were a vegetable.”

Intimacy with the foundational details of how to treat a fruit or vegetable will go a long way towards inspiring confidence and will, hopefully, produce better dishes. When it comes to mirlitons, they’re not very fussy. When selecting your produce, look for firm, small mirlitons that have no discoloration or residue on them, and if they have a spiny layer, peel that off prior to cooking if possible. They can be prepared pretty much every which way — baked, fried, sautéed, pickled, puréed, diced up raw in salads like jicama, you name it — either with the tough skin on or off. If you’re peeling it raw, do so under running water, or wash your hands immediately after: They secrete a sticky substance that might aggravate your skin.

And if you’re thinking about cooking with your own freshly grown crop of backyard mirlitons, Hill advises to wait a little while and use store-bought ones until the plants are better established.

“I have to say right now, with every mirliton we grow, I tell people don’t eat them because they’re babies. You need to plant them and get them growing, but most people don’t have enough patience to wait and grow more,” he explains, understanding that his advice might not be taken to heart by many. “People want to eat the mirlitons that their grandma made, though, so I think most of them get consumed.”

Start with the Classics
Speaking of grandmothers, the next step in learning how to really work with a piece of produce in the most creative number of ways is by starting with the classics. For mirliton, that means two things: stuffed mirliton and mirliton dressing.

Ask 100 people in South Louisiana how to make stuffed mirlitons and mirliton dressing and you’re going to get 100 different answers — every family has their own, quasi-secret recipes passed down throughout the generations that they’ll swear by. There’s stuffed mirliton with sausage that’s the standard-to-beat for some, then it’s a trio of seafood stuffing ingredients — crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish — that’s the gold standard for others. You include a garden’s worth of vegetables in your stuffed mirliton, or you think that the meat-meets-mirliton flavor should shine through. You’re a spice-it-up devotee, or you believe salt and pepper (and maybe a little bit of hot sauce) can make it sing. Whatever your chosen path, mirliton is a vegetable simply begging to be stuffed, baked and devoured thanks to its naturally hollowed-out middle (once the seed is removed).

With mirliton dressing, there’s the same ability to play around with family preference and personal taste until you find just the right combination to hit that delicious-meets-nostalgia sweet spot. Shrimp and mirliton with day-old French bread remains the classic, but adding crabmeat or sausage, or replacing the French bread with cornbread, are also stellar moves.

“My introduction to mirlitons was backyard growing and traditional New Orleans recipes decades ago. My neighbor shows up one day with this Schwegmann’s bag full of these things, and said, ‘Do you want mirlitons?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, what do you do with them?’” Hill chuckles. “He goes, ‘I’ll send Gladys over with some recipes.’ I got stuffed mirlitons, mirliton casserole and mirliton pie. Mirliton pie has kind of fallen out of favor, but my sons request that for their birthday. It’s not at all a pie, it’s more like a banana bread. It has a such a unique flavor.”

Learn Its Compatibilities
Every piece of produce has a wide variety of spices, herbs, grains — and even other types of produce — that help to make it shine. Satsumas, for example, balance beautifully against vanilla in sweeter creations like shortbreads and parfaits, but can just as easily team up with a little bit of coriander and ginger as the perfect glaze to cut through the richness of duck. Treating an ingredient as a one-trick (or one-flavor) pony is a surefire way to miss out on its exquisite range. Pretty much any piece of produce has the ability to play nicely with dozens of other unexpected ingredients and build flavorful complexity — if you only give it a chance.

“An essential aspect of great cooking is harnessing compatible flavors, which involves knowing which…flavorings best accentuate particular ingredients,” writes Karen Page in the kitchen must-have, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs, which offers some of the strongest charts, explainers and reference points out there for how to pair ingredients and flavors based on all of the senses. “A process of trial-and-error over the centuries resulted in…timeless combinations of beloved flavor pairings — for example, basil with tomatoes [and] rosemary with lamb. However, today it’s possible to use scientific techniques to analyze similar molecular structures to come up with new, compatible pairing possibilities, as odd as some might sound — jasmine with pork liver [or] parsley with banana.”

When it comes to mirliton — with its apple-meets-cucumber clean taste — Hill discovered that cornmeal is (somewhat surprisingly) an ideal counterpart for the squash, and mirliton corn muffins soon became a hit at his house.

“When I was initially trying to make my mirliton muffins, there were recipes that used mirlitons and wheat flour, and it always turned out horribly, because mirlitons have a lot of moisture and they discharge it while baking, so you get a soggy product,” Hill explains. “I discovered that cornmeal absorbs moisture, and that any moisture mirlitons can put out is absorbed into the muffin, so the resulting muffin is not only light and moist, but it’s this wonderful flavor that’s the essence of Mexican cuisine.” (If you’d like to try your hand at a batch of these for Thanksgiving, the recipe is on mirliton.org.)

Mirlitons also have the unique ability to serve as the star of a sweet dish as much as a savory creation. Hill has been working for a while on a marmalade recipe with mirliton featuring Jamaican-inspired flavors like lime, allspice and clove. “I’m not a chef, but I do know from my own experiments that mirlitons not only blend well with other foods, they complement other foods,” explains Hill. “People don’t generally think of that.”

Swap It In
Understanding what sort of family tree a vegetable has — its direct relatives, its weirdo cousins, its texture equivalent — will lead to a lot of chances to use familiar preparations with a new ingredient. You might not love potatoes, but mashed turnips will give you the same beautiful consistency and starch with just a little bit more earthy bite. Not an eggplant person or allergic to nightshades? Zucchini can act in a lot of the same ways as eggplant without sacrificing taste or mouthfeel. 

Mirliton is part of the gourd family (pumpkins, cantaloupe, butternut squash — the list goes on and on) which means if there’s a squash recipe you love, go ahead and try it out with mirliton. The results might surprise you — and might be even tastier than the original version.

Go Abroad
Mirliton is — if nothing else — a completely global vegetable. Around the world it’s called everything from Iskush in Nepal, to Choko in Australia, to Fo shou gua in China, ensuring that there’s an extremely rich range of options to search through while exploring mirliton’s range. (The mirliton.org website alone offers links to over 500 global recipes.)

And if you’re thinking of mixing up the Thanksgiving menu this year, a Honduran preparation of mirliton might make the perfect morning-after breakfast.

“[Mirlitons] grow very big in Honduras. There’s a dish where they put locally made queso in the center, then dip it in an egg batter and fry it in a pan with a tomato sauce to cook it down. So, it’s basically a kind of overgrown omelet,” says Hill. “It’s wonderful because that’s actually three fairly milder flavors — mirliton, cheese, egg — with a sauce that just pulls it all together.”

On the boozier side of things, if anyone’s wondering: Yes, you can make a wine out of it.

“Mirliton wine is a traditional alcoholic drink in Jamaica, and I talked to a vintner about that one time. They said, ‘Yeah, we would make some, but we need about 40 gallons of mirliton juice,’” laughs Hill. “But then I talked to a woman who said that her husband used to make [mirliton wine] out in Metairie. Well, then I finally found a recipe for it. It was innovation.”

When it comes to an unfamiliar piece of produce, the inspiration is there to start experimenting if your ideas are bold enough. And mirliton is there, waiting with bated breath, for you to show it a little bit of innovation.