Think New Orleans food, and staples like muffulettas, crawfish, beignets, and po’boys come to mind. But each October, a lesser-known native delicacy creeps across yards and up trellises all around the city. A wrinkly, pale green gourd, the mirliton—known as chayote in the Latin American culinary canon—dates back to at least the 1800s in the city (probably brought from the Caribbean and Mexico) and remains a backyard favorite. “As a child, I remember mirlitons growing on wrought-iron fences in my grandma’s neighborhood in the Irish Channel,” says Tommy DiGiovanni, executive chef at Arnaud’s, a Crescent City institution since 1918. He compares the vegetable’s texture and crunch to those of an apple, but with a more cucumber-like flavor. At the restaurant he loves to incorporate them into salads and dips, or serve them split in half and stuffed with shrimp (a classic Thanksgiving dish) or ham. Although you’re most likely to find domestic mirlitons in Louisiana and parts of Florida, south-of-the-border imports are increasingly available at markets throughout the South. Look for gourds that are light to medium green in color and free of blemishes. They can be stored unpeeled for up to several weeks in the refrigerator. DiGiovanni’s preparations will also work with other gourd varieties. “If you cannot get your hands on mirlitons,” the chef says, “try substituting delicata squash, which boasts a semisweet flavor, or cucuzza, whose taste is closest to a zucchini.” But to really experience one of New Orleans’ last great culinary surprises, it’s worth seeking out the real thing.
Mirlitons Three Ways
Make a Dip
“This hot smothered recipe is spicy, smoky, and tangy—great with chips or fried plantains. The mirlitons act as a sponge and absorb all the wonderful combinations of flavors.”
Render 3 diced bacon strips in a saucepan over medium heat, then drain fat. Add ½ cup diced onion, ½ cup diced celery, and 4 minced garlic cloves, and cook 3 minutes more. Add 1 can Ro-Tel and bring to a simmer. Add 2 diced mirlitons and 2 cups chicken stock, and simmer a half hour, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Salt to taste.
Top a Salad
“Crab-boiled mirlitons are great with greens or as a snack on their own. They also make a fantastic garnish in cocktails.”
Combine 1 tbsp. Zatarain’s crab boil seasoning, 2 tbsp. salt, 2 lemons, and 4 cups water in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, peel 1 mirliton and slice it into ½-inch-thick rounds. Add mirliton slices to the pot and simmer 4 to 5 minutes, until tender. Remove pot from heat, drain half the liquid, and add ice to the remaining pot liquid to stop the cooking process. When liquid is fully cooled, drain mirliton slices and pat dry.
Stuff with Dressing
“This is the perfect side dish for roast pork or poultry.”
Halve 4 mirlitons lengthwise, scoop out their cavities, and boil 12 minutes in 1 qt. water seasoned with 1 lemon and 2 tbsp. salt. Meanwhile, sauté ½ cup diced bell pepper, ½ cup diced onion, and ½ diced jalapeño in 1 tbsp. butter until transparent. Add 1 cup diced Tasso ham and sauté 2 minutes; then add 2 cups cooked long-grain rice and ½ cup heavy cream and simmer 3 minutes, until cream has reduced. Fill mirliton cavities with rice mixture, top with ½ cup green onion and 1 cup grated pepper jack cheese (divided evenly), and bake covered at 350°F 25 minutes.