French West Indians call it christophene and bake it with cheese and chiles. Jamaicans call it chocho and add it to apple pies. Puerto Ricans call it chayote (pronounced "chy-OH-tay") and scramble it with eggs and ham. Cajuns call it mirliton (pronounced "mellaton") and stuff it like eggplant. Elsewhere in the United States it's called chayote, though many Americans have actually never heard of it.
Chayote is a tropical squash of Mexican origin popular in the Caribbean and Latin America. I first sampled it on the island of St. Barthelemy in the French West Indies, where it is stuffed with bread crumbs, chiles and cheese and served as a bubbling gratin. I assumed it was one of those strange local vegetables one eats in the islands and forgets about back home.
It wasn't long, however, before I found chayotes everywhere I turned. The tiny Puerto Rican market in my neighborhood carried it. So did a nearby Indian grocery store and the vegetable markets in Chinatown. A Brazilian friend served me a refreshing xuxu (chayote) salad. I even found the pear-shaped vegetable in the produce section of my local supermarket.
Chayote is native to Mexico, where it was brought under cultivation by the Aztecs. (The name comes from the Aztec word chayotli. ) A distant cousin of the pumpkin and cucumber, it grows on a prolific perennial vine in tropical and semi-tropical regions around the world. Chayote is an excellent keeper, which no doubt endeared it to people in warm climates.
At first glance, the chayote looks like a flat avocado or pear. It can range in length from three to eight inches and can weigh anywhere from six ounces to a couple of pounds. Depending on the variety, the rind will be green, tan or brown; smooth-skinned, furrowed or even covered with Velcro-like prickles. The type most commonly found in the United States is pale green, thin-skinned, lightly furrowed and the size of an avocado.
The crisp pale flesh of the chayote has the flavor of cooked cucumber. (Other people are reminded of baby zucchini or summer squash.) Its delicate taste prompted food historian Waverley Root to write that it is "so indecisive in flavor that it is being eaten increasingly in the British Isles, where tastelessness is a virtue." I prefer to think of its flavor as subtle--a sort of blank canvas awaiting the cook's culinary colors.
And a willing canvas it is. Chayote has a natural affinity for chiles, cheese, bread crumbs, bacon, onions, green onions and shrimp. By itself, it is low in calories--40 to a one-cup serving--and it's moderately high in potassium and fiber.
When buying chayotes, choose firm, unblemished specimens. Unlike the tomato or the avocado, the harder it is, the better. In the West Indies, people favor mature chayotes with the stem ends split and the seeds visible, but the small green chayotes are the most tender and are the kind most readily encountered in this country. Figure on six to eight ounces of chayote per person. Chayotes will keep for two weeks at room temperature and up to six weeks in the refrigerator.
Chayote can be cooked the way you would any squash: by boiling, steaming, baking or even grilling. Because of its dense flesh, it takes surprisingly long to cook chayote--30 to 40 minutes to steam or boil a whole one, six to eight minutes to boil a sliced one and or 20 to 30 minutes to bake chayote slices.
When using chayote for stuffing and baking, leave the skin intact. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and steam or boil until sufficiently tender to scrape out the flesh with a spoon. Don't discard the single white seed, which has a pleasantly nutty almond taste.
When using chayote for sauteing or salads, peel off the tough skin, using a vegetable peeler or paring knife. There's a sticky substance just under the skin of some chayotes that some people find irritating. If this is the case, peel the squash under cold running water.
Mark Militello, of the restaurant Mark's Place in North Miami, serves grilled chayote in salads and as an accompaniment to fish. To prepare a chayote for grilling, cut it into broad slices an eighth of an inch thick on a mandoline or meat slicer. Brush the slices with olive oil and grill for one to two minutes per side or until tender.
Brazilians like to serve chayotes in salads. Peel the chayote and cut it into finger-sized strips. Cook these strips in boiling salted water for six to eight minutes or until tender. Refresh under cold water and drain. Toss the chayote strips with olive oil, lime juice, salt, pepper, chopped chiles or peppers and fresh herbs.
Cooked chayotes can also be mashed, like potatoes and batter-fried like zucchini. The Cajuns of Louisiana have a colorful name for stuffed chayotes: pirogues , literally "dugout canoes."
In the French West Indies, chayotes are commonly served stuffed with a sort of bechamel sauce and cheese. This recipe comes from the restaurant La Langouste in St. Barthelemy.
STUFFED CHAYOTES (Christophenes Farcies)
3 chayotes, about 1 1/2 pounds
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup milk
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon chopped Scotch Bonnet or other hot chile, minced
Freshly ground pepper
6 ounces finely shredded Gruyere cheese
3 tablespoons soft bread crumbs
Cut each chayote in half lengthwise and steam or boil in salted water 30 minutes or until very tender. Refresh under cold water and drain. Using spoon, scrape out flesh, taking care not to puncture skin. Drain flesh in strainer, pressing with back of spoon to extract any water. Puree in food processor or by forcing through sieve.
Lightly brown bacon in small saucepan and drain on paper towel. Pour off fat from saucepan. Add butter and onion and lightly brown over medium heat. Stir in flour to make roux. Whisk in milk and bring to boil. Stir in chayote puree, parsley, chile and bacon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place chayote shells in oiled baking dish. Spoon few tablespoons filling into each. Sprinkle few tablespoons cheese on top. Add more chayote mixture and more cheese, continuing until each shell is full. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top, followed by bread crumbs. (Any extra chayote mixture can be baked in buttered ramekin.) Chayotes can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.
Just before serving, bake chayotes at 400 degrees 10 to 15 minutes or until thoroughly heated and top is bubbling and browned. Serve as appetizer or vegetable side dish. Makes 6 servings.