Civil War disrupted U.S. cultivation of mirliton
Published 2:19 am Saturday, October 14, 2017
Chayote (Sechium edule) is a native of Mexico and has been naturalized throughout Central America and the Caribbean. It was raised as chocho in Jamaica during the 18th century and exported to North American markets along the eastern seaboard. It was also grown along the coast as far north as Charleston well into the 1850s. The Civil War disrupted cultivation and it was not until the 1890s that serious attempts were undertaken to reintroduce it as a truck-farm product under the name vegetable pear. In the 1920s the US Dept. of Agriculture attempted to introduce the mirliton to a broader public in a project based in Homestead, Fla., using varieties imported from Cuba. They used the name vegetable pear but lack of consumer demand ended the federally funded project. However in Louisiana where it is known as a mirliton it has been a basic ingredient in local cookery since the 1700s. The mirliton remained in New Orleans where eccentricity in music, culture, and even vegetables is well tolerated.
My husband first encountered mirlilton when he lived in Haiti many years ago. We can find it in the markets here near New Orleans. He is always interested in growing them, and has, off and on for several years. There is a push from a fancier in New Orleans (Lance Hill) to save and grow heirloom mirliton. You can also use store bought ones to start a vine. My husband last fall found some in the New Orleans farmer’s market. The lady didn’t know a variety but had been growing them in Plaquemines Parish for some time so he calls ours Plaquemine mirlitons. We have had trouble overwintering vines in the past and have occasionally succeeded. We let these two mirlitons sprout and during last winter potted them and planted them out after the last frost. He re-read instructions: raised bed (Water-logging the mirliton is the best way to kill it.) and 12’ diameter room for the roots to spread. Plant in full sun, mulch. One needs a lot of support. They seem to fruit best on horizontal vines so perhaps grow on an arbor like grapes. The vines can grow 40 feet. We have never seen such vines as these two of ours have produced. They fruit due to day length and usually appear late October or November. We are having them early this year.
We had chayote during our recent visit to the Yucatan, cooked and served as a side to a steak instead of potatoes. New Orleans’ recipes usually call for stuffing them with shrimp. One author noted they can be pickled as a passable substitute for artichoke hearts; they make convincing French fries and gratins and pies, or they can be eaten raw in salads. The entire plant is edible. The greens can be used in salads and stir-fries, the tubers which can grow up to 20 pounds can be cooked as yams.
When you find them buy several. Do not refrigerate but eat fairly soon as they will start to sprout. Let some sprout and plant them out next spring. When you put them in a pot this winter do not bury the whole fruit as it will rot. They produce more each year and can produce as many as 400 fruits! We have not gotten that far yet.
I found a delicious recipe for mirliton in John Folse’s Cookbook, Dig It. Mirliton is good used in soups but does well with some cheese and spices. It has a mild flavor but soaks up the flavor of spices and herbs.
This is good. Give it a try.
Gratin of Mirliton with Fine Herbs
4-6 mirlitons, peeled, halved lengthwise, and seeded
1 tsp. tarragon
1 tsp. minced thyme
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. white pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg
2 tbsp. grated Gruyére cheese
2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a glass ramekin or baking dish and set aside. Using a sharp kitchen knife, thinly slice mirliton halves lengthwise and set aside. In a shallow bowl, season cream with tarragon, thyme, salt, white pepper, cayenne pepper and nutmeg, stirring to mix well. Dip half of mirliton slices in seasoned cream and continue to layer in baking dish. Sprinkle Gruyére cheese in a single layer over mirlitons. Dip remaining mirliton slices in seasoned cream and continue to layer in baking dish. Evenly pour remaining seasoned cream over mirliton and cheese. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake 30-45 minutes or until squash is tender. Remove foil and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Increase oven heat to 425°F and bake 10-15 minutes or until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest 5 minutes before serving.