Citrus season is an exciting time for those of us living in temperate zones. In fact, I know some who would argue that citrus is the only good thing about winter (I would retort that...
If you were standing with me on the front porch of the Joy Test Kitchen right now, you would see the chickens. They're beautiful. They have little feathery bell bottoms and ruffle their feathers and scratch and cluck and coo. The guineas are even more beautiful, like little round ladies with bustles. There are feathers and bits of straw everywhere. It's a huge mess, and it's great.
Having chickens really puts some perspective on how many daylight hours there are. You think you get up early? Those chickens, man. They get up early. I've been getting up early, but they always give me this what-took-you-so-long stare as I fill their feeders. Now that daylight savings has stirred things up, daylight begins somewhere around 6 a.m.
I don't know who has had the harder time adjusting, me or them. Don't judge. 6 a.m. is not too early to wake up, make coffee, and read a magazine or check your email. 6 a.m. feels too early to wake up, get dressed, and step out in the cold to feed and water a flock of birds...before coffee.
I got my birds a week before the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. I found the birds a sitter (being cute helps you find sitters for chickens; I really don't know how else I would have pulled it off), and we embarked. We heard, saw, and did so much that there's really no time for it here and now. Incredible food, plenty of booze, great folks, and absolutely fascinating speakers.
But the one subject that caught my attention, and the one I have been thinking about for the better part of the past week, is the mirliton squash. More weighty subjects were discussed, for sure. Civil rights and land ownership, the importance of farmer's markets, community gardens...and yet the story of this squash completely captivated me.
I find big topics fascinating, but a little scary. I love talking about them, but there are so many nooks and shadows and nuances that there never seems to be any real conclusion, and someone always goes away feeling unfulfilled. This is okay, but what I'm saying is that sometimes I just like the tangibility of squash. And the story behind this one is interesting enough to merit my fascination.
In most grocery stores, this squash is called a chayote. If you live in Louisiana, you might know this squash as a mirliton (pronounced many different ways, including "mellyton" or "mellytaw") or christophene. And the chayote that sits next to jicama at your local Latino market is not the same as the mirliton that grew in backyards all over southern Louisiana.
In and around New Orleans, an heirloom variety of mirliton has been grown for some time. It has adapted to the particular climate of the area and cannot be found anywhere else, I daresay, on the planet. The mirlitons grown in New Orleans are slightly larger and ridged with more indentations than your average chayote. They grow on perennial vines and are known to be prolific. At least until Katrina.
Katrina wiped out almost every mirliton vine in the region. The vines were either destroyed or stressed, and the heirloom mirliton seemed to be all but extinct. An eccentric professor (vegetable obsession requires a certain degree of eccentricity) named Lance Hill is responsible for the effort to bring them back. When he lost his mirliton vines to the storm, he did what he had always heard to do--buy a mirliton at the supermarket and plant it whole. Only, he found that when he did this, the resulting vines weren't hardy and didn't produce. Most supermarket mirlitons are from Costa Rica and are grown at 4 to 5,000 feet, making them unsuitable for the New Orleans area. Even if these squash had produced, the mirlitons would not have been the New Orleans heirloom.
Hill did some scouting and managed to find a handful of people with intact heirloom mirliton vines. He started a program called Adopt-A-Mirliton and used mirlitons donated from those few vines to reestablish the heirloom in New Orleans. However, reestablishment proved to be more difficult than merely planting a seed. Katrina also wiped out most of the honeybee population in Louisiana, and so the new vines simply did not produce. Hill attempted to teach the cultivators of these vines how to pollinate them with a paintbrush, but as many people were simply accustomed to the mirliton as a fuss free plant that produced copious amounts of squash, having to pollinate them by hand for only a few squash proved to be too much work.
The effort is ongoing. With increased awareness, hard-working paintbrushes, and luck, hopefully someday the mirliton vines of New Orleans will flourish again. For now, we'll just have to settle with its sturdy stand-in, the chayote.
They have a slightly sweet vegetal taste. Imagine a summer squash with a hint of sweetness. They can be eaten raw, in which case they must be peeled first (under running water to wash away the slimy substance that irritates the skin of some), but they are usually cooked whole, either by boiling or steaming, and stuffed. Being a squash, you can cook mirliton in any of the ways you might prepare summer squash. They are very pleasant in their raw form, making in intriguing addition to salads, slaws, and even spring rolls.
The stuffing method is a common incarnation of mirliton in Louisiana, especially for Thanksgiving. The mirlitons are cooked whole in boiling water, the flesh is scooped out and combined with other ingredients, and the shells are filled and baked, not unlike a twice-baked potato. I used Andouille sausage in my recipe, but there's no reason you couldn't use other meats such as ham or plain sausage, shrimp, or crabmeat. Similarly, season these to your preference. I can imagine them being exquisite with cumin and coriander. The flavor is lovely and well balanced between the sweetness of the squash and the sublime savoriness of the filling.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Boil in salted water until they can be pierced easily with a knife, about 25 minutes:
4 mirlitons of roughly the same size (about 2 pounds)
Let cool until cool enough to handle. Cut in half, remove seeds (these are edible and quite delicious, so munch on them rather than simply throwing them away), and scoop out flesh into a small bowl. Drain off any excess water.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook until beginning to brown:
12 ounces Andouille sausage, casings removed and meat crumbled
Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
If necessary (my Andouille was very lean, and so it was necessary), add to the pan:
(2 tablespoons vegetable oil)
Sauté until onions are translucent and peppers are tender:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
Add and sauté for 2 minutes more:
2 cloves garlic, minced
Add and cooked sausage, mirliton flesh, and:
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Sauté 5 minutes more. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf and discard. Taste mixture for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in:
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Fill the mirliton shells with the sausage mixture. Sprinkle over the tops:
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Bake until crumbs are browned, about 35 minutes. If necessary, brown the crumbs under the broiler for a few minutes.