Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Chayote

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Though the shape of a chayote has been likened to a fist - and the fruit is even dubbed "Buddha's hand melon" in the south of China - its flavor doesn't exactly pack a punch. Rather, the chayote has a mild taste that balances between apple and cucumber with a jicama-like fresh crispiness, making it a versatile addition to the dinner plate. A member of the gourd family, it can be cooked or eaten raw, and when cooked is similar to a tough version of a summer squash. While veg-like in practice and in flavor, chayote is actually classified as a fruit and all parts of the plant are edible, from the root to its leaves to its one seed. The chayote is quite adaptable: easily juiced or made into baby food; delightful in salads and salsas; happily sautéed, grilled or fried; and a welcome component to baked goods and desserts.

A Brief History of Chayote

Chayote is native to Mesoamerica, likely originating in Mexico. It was cultivated by the Aztecs, but became popular across the globe after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. Since then, the gourd has been enjoyed in South American cuisines along with the cuisines of Southeast Asia, Australasia, Africa, North America and parts of Europe (such as - no surprise here - Spain).

In fact, Spanish influence is perhaps responsible for the chayote's limited US fandom in but one state: Louisiana, where it has loomed large as a local specialty. Due to an influx of immigration from the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands to Louisiana in the 1700s, the chayote (later dubbed mirliton by the Haitian French-speakers also having immigrated there) made its way to the States, where it found its home in Louisiana. The gourd is so regionally popular, in fact, that New Orleans has an entire festival dedicated to it. Chayote's celebrity status in Louisiana is often attributed to its ability to expand a meat dish, a method sometimes derogatorily known as "peasant food" in which an inexpensive carbohydrate acts as a filler in a more costly meat dish. ("Peasant food" is actually pretty great - putting plants at the forefront of your plate is a vastly more sustainable and affordable way to dine. Peasant food is a concept we're very on board with.) Additionally, the gourd has served in New Orleans as a community builder of sorts; since the weight of the chayote demands a trellis to allow the plant to climb, chayote is said to bring neighbors together over its growth on shared chain-link fences. Tragically, despite the fame of chayote in Louisiana, many of the varieties there were wiped out during Hurricane Katrina and have not yet recovered. However, current efforts to reinvigorate heirloom varietals by New Orleans residents could put chayote back on the menu.

Factual Nibbles

  • The chayote goes by many names. Some call chayote by the name custard marrow; some refer to it as vegetable pear. In Louisiana, where the chayote goes by the name "mirliton," pronunciations differ between "mer-leh-tawn" or "mel-uh-tawn" Others call it christophine, choko, iskut, mango squash, xuxu, or my personal favorite, machuchu.
  • The vines of the chayote plant are durable but flexible, and are used in the making of hats and baskets.
  • The word for chayote in Brazil is "chuchu" (or "xuxu"), which is also an affectionate name for someone such as "cutie" or "sweetie." Whether the pet name developed out of squash origin is up for debate - but I like to think it did.

Chayote Cultivation

Chayote (Sechium edule)is part of the Cucurbitaceae family, which is also home to the pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon and cucumber, among other favorite foods. Like its family members, chayote has a tendency towards urban - er - garden sprawl. The plant flourishes best with a trellis since they're avid climbers, and they demand quite a bit of room for expansion.

Seasonality

Chayote thrives in areas which have warm to hot summer months, such as Florida, the Gulf Coast and California, and are ready for harvest generally between October and December.

Environmental Impact of Chayote

As chayote is not commercially grown in the United States and is mostly cultivated small-scale (and often by home gardeners), it has a limited environmental impact. That being said, much of the US chayote crop is imported from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Many of these countries rely heavily on pesticide use for chayote production, which can degrade soil, water and nearby plant and animal life.

Chayote Characteristics

Chayote is available in a few different varietal shapes and sizes. The most common variety is pear-shaped, almost resembling a bumpy version of a Choquette avocado. They range from being cream-like in color to pale green, darker green and even brown. Most chayotes are smooth-skinned with ridges (or "knuckles"). And some varieties are spiky - think a melon with a mohawk. In all versions, the skin is edible.

What to Look for

Look for light to dark green skin when purchasing chayote, though some varieties are available in cream and brown. Seek out a firm gourd as, unlike melons, a little softness is not an indication of sweetness so much as that the gourd has begun to turn.

Chayote Nutrition

Chayote is high in carbohydrates and calories, which is the main reason it is frequently used in the stretching of low-meat dishes. It is lower in fiber than many other fruits and vegetables, as well as protein. However, it is quite high in a range of amino acids, and sufficient in micro and macronutrients. As a generally inexpensive form of produce, it's a real bang for your buck in terms of calorie intake and satiety.

What to Do With Chayote and How to Cook It

As a flexible food adaptable to many tastes and cuisines, chayote is used with vastly different flavor profiles across the globe. In Asian countries, it is often boiled and paired with a meat in a soup. In Mexico, it is sometimes served in a traditional mole sauce. Latin America uses chayote in sweeter dishes, much like we use pumpkin. Chayote makes an interesting stand-in or addition to apples in an "apple" pie and can also be made into a bread, like zucchini. In Puerto Rico, it's scrambled into eggs with ham or made into an omelet. In Louisiana, it's stuffed with shrimp or other seafood and served on the Thanksgiving table! It is truly the chameleon of the gourd world.

Chayote Storage

Chayote has a tough skin and thus can last up to four weeks in the refrigerator, making it a reliable post-harvest vegetable for the colder months.

How to Preserve Chayote

In Mexico especially, chayote is dried and made into jams and sweets. It can be pickled and preserved, like in this Chayote and Jicama Slaw, or made into a relish. Cut and then canned or frozen, chayote can last up to a year and be thrown into stews or sautéed in butter or oil.

Recipe: Chayote-Sage Orzo

The versatility of chayote really lends itself to any flavor profile, but to celebrate its individuality its worth trying chayote in a simple dish that highlights its more subtle qualities. And orzo, meanwhile, is the most flirtatious little food - pasta that's shaped like rice, it is a total crowd pleaser (especially for wee ones). Mix these two ingredients together and you have a relaxed and pleasing weeknight dinner, that's both elegant and humble, and shall we reluctantly say... peasant-forward.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium-sized onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 chayote cut into ½ inch cubes
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped

Method:

Boil water and cook 1 cup orzo until it is al dente (approximately 8-9 minutes, or according to package instructions). Simultaneously, heat olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and sauté until tender. Add cubed chayote, sea salt and ½ cup wine and cook until a fork will easily slide into the chayote cubes. Combine orzo and squash with sage and an extra drizzle of olive oil. Toss. Serve with parmesan cheese.