by Brian Clarey
I’m gloating this post-Thanksgiving morning, riding high on the poignancy of the holiday itself and also because I killed it last night with a new side dish. A perusal of the leftovers confirms that my mirliton dressing was the hit of the day. There’s barely enough left to fill a cereal bowl, and that final portion will be disposed of by the time I finish this piece.
I first tried this traditional south Louisiana dish 20 years ago at the Thanksgiving table of the Hebert family on the fabulous West Bank of New Orleans. I had never heard of a mirliton — the savory pear-like fruit sometimes known as chayote — before, and learned to pronounce it in the Cajun way: mer-li-TAWN.
I picked up five pounds of them at Harris Teeter, right there on the produce shelf. They’re green, like large pears, and heavy at almost a pound apiece, with a puckered seam along the bottom that looks like the mouth of a toothless old man.
Its flesh, when raw, is not unlike a potato, perhaps a bit softer and with a pronounced vegetable flavor buried in the starch.
This is real maw maw stuff — nobody eats these things but Cajuns and Latinos, as far as I can tell — and the recipe I used was similar to the one the Hebert family had used for generations.
All Cajun cooking starts with the holy trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper. To that I added a diced jalapeño for kick, along with my personal spice blend and a ton of garlic, about six cloves, chopped as small as I could get it.
When that cooked down a little I added the boiled mirliton, peeled, de-seeded and cut into cubes. When I smashed them down with the potato masher, they reduced to a more fibrous consistency than mashed potatoes that held even after half an hour or so of heat.
The only bread in this recipe is a cup of breadcrumbs — I used panko — and the only meat in this dish is a couple pounds of shrimp, but the ones I used would have insulted Maw Maw Hebert: a few bags of frozen and peeled grocery-store specials. Maw Maw told me that all of the best shrimp flavor is in the heads and tails — the head fat, in particular. But even peeled and de-veined, good fresh shrimp from a local source can add a strong element to this dish.
Mine were okay, I guess. At least they weren’t pre-cooked.
But the shrimp is not the star of this dish. It’s the simple mirliton that creates the bedrock upon which a lavish structure of textures and spices is built. Heat comes from the garlic and jalapeño, from the pyramid of ground peppers in the spice blend and from three basil leaves that permeate the mild mirliton during a 30-minute oven bask.
I also put about a pound of shredded cheese on top, to hide all the vegetables.
And I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: It killed. I played it cool all night as people asked me about the dish, and it was a hot request item on the take-out plates.
I’m thankful there was enough left for me to get another bite this morning.
Maw Maw always said the mirliton tastes better the next day.