Friday, November 26, 2010

From the Farmer's Market to the Table. . .


Apparently elsewhere it's known as chayote.  A cross between a squash and a pear.  Here in New Orleans, we call it a mirliton.  The only place else in the world you can find it referred to as a mirliton is in Haiti, the former French colony of St. Domingue, from which we in New Orleans received so many refugees after the massive slave revolt that occurred.

My memories of mirlitons. . .ALWAYS at Thanksgiving and ALWAYS something of which to be skeptical.  My grandmothers are two different sides of the spectrum---one a Creole from the New Orleans metropolitan area, the other a Cajun from Southwestern Louisiana.  It was my Creole New Orlenas grandmother who put out the mirliton dish at Thanksgiving.

Mirliton casserole was something I was at least willing to try as it contained shrimp, my favorite food.  However, it also was a heavy, slimy, olive green mass of a seriously breaded casserole.  Probably not something Martha Stewart would allow on her table.  But that never stopped New Orleans mamas or Maw Maws.

During my trip to the farmer's market this week, I purchased three mirlitons.  I am a very traditional person, and I wanted to carry on the New Orleans tradition of having a mirliton dish at Thanksgiving.  Apparently, mirlitons are somewhat of an endangered species, not the kind you find in the grocery store, but the kind that are considered a quintessentially New Orleans plant.  Mirlitons were not something New Orleanians went to the grocery and purchased.  The vines grew in their backyards, and they picked them, boiled them, chopped them, stuffed them, and served them.  However, Hurricane Katrina managed to wipe out our backyard mirliton population (among other things).  So now mirlitons, like oysters---a whole other post---are a New Orleans delicacy.  I became more determined than ever to somehow incorporate them into my holiday cooking.

I bought the ingredients to make the dreaded casserole.  Half way through the day on Wednesday---in fact, as my mirlitons were actually boiling---I became determined to use them for something else.  None of that heavy, horrible, slimy, breaded casserole stuff for me.  I wanted to use the mirlitons but transform them into a unique dish.  I accessed the Times Picayune's recipe index---a website which every cook from Maine to California should regularly access---and discovered a recipe for mirliton bread.  I was highly skeptical at first.  But I figured, what the hell.  Let's give it a shot.  At any rate, no one will EVER believe what the main ingredient is!

Mirlitons can be hard to work with.  They are literally hard.  And they have spiny ends.  You have to boil them for an hour.  Then when you cut them open, they resemble pears.

I am a big fan of spices.  When I saw that the recipe contained cinnamon and nutmeg, I piled it on!  I probably wound up putting twice the amount of spices, but ultimately, this would work in my favor.  It tasted so much like a spice cake or spice bread.  The mirlitons helped keep the bread moist, very similar to what bananas do for banana bread.  You could add nuts to this bread; I just didn't have them on hand, as I decided to make them it on the fly (remember, casserole was the original goal).

And voila!  The finished product:

My grandmother raved about it.  She is an accomplished cook and would be very honest with me if it did not turn out right.  We had the best time getting the aunts, uncles, and cousins to sample the bread at Thanksgving and guess what the main ingredient was!  No one got it, but once they were told, they said, "Uh huh!  I see it now!"  So much fun!  And so yummy!

For information on growing your on mirlitons and keeping the tradition alive, see the following article on the Mirliton Man.

My recipe, modified from the Picayune's version, submitted by Mary Cooper in 1992.

½ cup butter 
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 cups cooked seeded peeled mirliton, smushed as you would mashed potatoes
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour one  loaf pan 
Cream butter and sugar. Mix in eggs. Add mirliton and mix well.
Sift together dry ingredients. Add to mirliton mixture and mix well.  Transfer batter to pan.
Bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

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