Mirliton: A Vegetable by Any Other Name

by Katherine Sacks
Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt
February 2012

Recipe

Bios

Jared Lee Pyles of HD1 – Atlanta, GA

Scott Serpas of Serpas True Food – Atlanta, GA

Mirliton Stats

Cost:
$1.40 to $1.60 per piece

Season:
December to March

Prep:
Remove the skin and use gloves when slicing, as mirliton releases a slippery sap that can be difficult to wash off.

Substitutes:
Jicama, radishes, apple, Bosc pear

You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to. And so goes the game of mirliton, which is known as chayote on the West Coast; christophine in Louisiana; and vegetable squash, pear squash, chouchoute, and choko around the globe. A native plant of South America and Mexico, mirliton was a traditional foodstuff for the Aztecs and Mayans that found its way into the hearts of the Southern United States through Spanish settlers who moved north. Today, this pale green, pear-shaped vegetable is a customary ingredient in Louisiana cuisine (a popular addition in traditional New Orleans Thanksgiving stuffing and the guest of honor at the city’s annual Bywater festival) and Atlanta transplants via Orleans brought the ingredient into the spotlight in Georgia recipes as well.

A member of the Cucurbitaceae family (the same that spawns melons, cucumbers, and squash), the wrinkled mirliton is available in either smooth or prickly varieties, and is eaten both raw and cooked. And although you can find mirliton prepared every which way—fried, stuffed, pickled, stir-fried, boiled, mashed, and shaved—its crunchy flesh has an almost non-flavor, similar in taste to water chestnuts, making the vegetable a versatile tool for providing crispy texture. When that crunch is combined with a spicy quick pickle, you get the tart bite of the unforgettable slaws and relishes we tasted across Atlanta and New Orleans.

“If a potato and pear met in an alley and got into a scuffle, mirliton is what the end result would be,” says Chef Jared Lee Pyles, who pickles the vegetable and adds it to a salad to top his Louisiana Lobster Dog at Atlanta’s HD1. Of mirliton’s initial neutral bite, Pyles explains, “it can take on a lot of flavors, almost like a pear, but not that sweet.” Tossed in a sweet, tangy honey vinaigrette, the salad helps cut through the rich, fatty flavor of his shrimp head aïoli—a luxurious nod to the Gulf’s seafood stock made by infusing shrimp heads in oil.

Louisiana Lobster Dog with Mirliton Salad and Shrimp Head AoliLouisiana Lobster Dog with Mirliton Salad and Shrimp Head Aoli at HD1

At nearby Serpas True Food, Chef Scott Serpas, who grew up eating the starchy vegetable on Christmas and Thanksgiving in Louisiana, stays true to his Southern roots with a Creole-style oyster dish topped with pickled veg. The corn flour-dusted oysters, flash-fried into crispy perfection, are finished with a splatter of Creole tartar and mirliton relish—Anaheim chilies, red onions, and blanched mirliton tossed in a classic white vinegar pickling liquid. The bright mirliton-chili-onion relish adds spunk—texture, acid, and spice—to what could be an otherwise ordinary dish. “It’s one of those vegetables that doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but it’s good to pickle and use as a vehicle for something else to give a little bite or crunch,” explains Serpas.

Flash Fried Oysters, Pickled Chiles, and MirlitonChef Scott Serpas' Flash Fried Oysters, Pickled Chiles, and Mirliton

Using mirliton in a similar way—and maximizing local Louisiana ingredients—New Orleans' Chef Brett Duffee combines supple smoked redfish with his Latin-inspired take on the traditional escabeche at Bayona. Smoky and sweet, salty and bright, his slaw of mirliton, tomatillos, avocado, radishes, carrots, and jalapeños is the perfect support system of crunchy textural balance to the juicy fish.

Brined and Brined and Smoked Redfish with Escabeche of Mirliton, Tomatillos, Avocado, Radishes, Carrots, and JalapenosBrined and Smoked Redfish with Escabeche of Mirliton, Tomatillos, Avocado, Radishes, Carrots, and Jalapenos at New Orleans' Bayona

Served raw (or slightly blanched) and pickled, mirliton offers a backbone of texture to salads and slaws. But this isn’t a one trick wonder—the vegetable can also be cooked a variety of ways. Serpas suggests a quick sauté or a creamy purée with herbs and butter. And New Orleans legend Chef Leah Chase often follows the classic suit at her Dooky Chase, stuffing the vegetable with shrimp meat, a dish that is by far one of the most popular mirliton preparations. But no matter how you serve it, or what you call it, this green vegetable, name and all, provides a bit—and a bite—of Southern flair.