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Fine From the Vine
Homecooking with mirlitons
The first house we owned was in the Broadmoor section of Uptown and came with a mirliton vine that draped our entire garage, hung over the edges and ran down two fences like grapevines. Pear-shaped vegetables dangled like holiday decorations. It was then that I learned to stuff mirlitons, make casseroles out of them and even pickle them. The vines were self-sufficient and provided free food for the taking. I gave them away by the bags-full.
It is no secret that mirlitons are as mandatory as the turkey for the Thanksgiving dinner in New Orleans, and no less expendable than the oyster dressing. What I really like about both the stuffed variety and the casserole is that they can be made ahead and frozen, easing the work for cooks of the labor-intensive meal.
At Thanksgiving, we have out-of-town friends who marvel at our “unique” traditions such as mirlitons, turduckens, oyster and dirty rice dressings, and deep-fried turkey. In their hometowns, the food is “regular” American with blander fare. I think they like ours better because they come back every year. Their hometowns also don’t have horse racing, a Thanksgiving Day parade or turkey gumbo the next day. And, great weather usually ices the cake.
Like cucumbers and squash, the pale green mirliton is a member of the gourd family and is much like a squash. Also called chayote in Latin America and the American Southwest, it has a delicate sweetness that pairs well with shrimp, which are also slightly sweet. Ham goes well, too, as does andouille, if you don’t use too much, or crabmeat for a lighter but succulent touch. Ground sausage also combines well with shrimp. The delicacy of the mirliton can be overpowered by stronger ingredients if you’re not careful, but a couple of pinches of cayenne are just right.
This year I’m adding a little minced andouille to my shrimp-stuffed mirlitons to spring yet another local ingredient on my guests. When they go home to Colorado and California, they can return to lamb chops and seaweed. But while I’ve got them here, they’ll dine on Gulf seafood and spicy foods with funny names.
Beyond the stuffing
1. To make a casserole rather than stuffing, scoop all of the mirliton meat out, discarding the peeling, or peel with a knife. Follow instructions above, and place mixture in a large casserole baking dish, sprinkle with bread crumbs and dot with butter. Baking instructions are the same.
2. To make ahead and freeze, place stuffed mirlitons in individual freezer bags with air removed and leave off the toppings of breadcrumbs and butter dots until ready to bake. For casserole, place in an aluminum baking pan and cover air-tight for freezing. Toppings can be added then or before baking.
3. Mirlitons are not the only things growing around us now. Late fall is a wonderful time for deeply colored vegetables loaded with nutrients. Our seasonal best from Louisiana farms includes all kinds of greens including turnip, mustard, collard, and kale, along with sweet potatoes, rutabagas, shelling beans, winter squash and pumpkins. Trees are heavy with mandarins, oranges, tangerines and persimmons, all at peak season and in time for Thanksgiving.
Shrimp And Andouille-Stuffed Mirlitons
1 ½ pounds shrimp with heads on
1 stick butter plus 2 tablespoons
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated
½ green bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ pound andouille sausage, chopped fine
2 pinches cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon Creole seasoning
1 ½ cups French bread crumbs plus some for topping
¼ cup chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1. In a large pot, cover mirlitons with water, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until very tender when tested with a fork, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Peel and devein shrimp and roughly chop.
3. In a large skillet, melt butter and saute white onions, bell pepper and celery until wilted, add garlic and saute another minute. Add shrimp and andouille and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until shrimp are pink. Add seasonings and cook another minute. Mix in bread crumbs, 1/3 cup green onion tops and parsley.
4. Slice mirlitons in half length-wise and discard seeds. With a serving spoon, scoop out mirlilton meat, leaving ¼-inch shells for stuffing.
Mash mirliton meat with a fork and stir into shrimp mixture. Taste and adjust seasonings. Place shells on a lightly greased baking pan, and divide shrimp mixture evenly among them. Sprinkle lightly with more bread crumbs. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into small pieces, and dot the mirlitons with it.
5. One hour before serving, place mirlitons in a 350-degree oven and bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned on top. Serves 10.