Great was my surprise to find unusual exotic looking vegetables in my weekly local surprise fruit and vegetable pack: hard pear-shaped objects named Chayotes. They are actually a fruit, I was told. The Chayote (Sechium edule), is known as “mirliton/ choko” in the US and “christophene” in France, and obviously sometimes called “vegetable pear”.
This edible plant (belonging to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, as are melons, cucumbers and squash, is a tropical cucurbit vine, common in Mexico and tropical zones in South America, but, imagine my surprise, they are also grown and harvested in the middle of France and South East of France, around September – October. Prickly varieties exist among its 11 species.
This gourd-like vegetable was the staple fruit of the Aztec people and the Mayans (especially the flowering tendrils and roots of the plant), is now as popular as tomatoes in Mexico, eaten raw in salads, cooked or in salsas.
Growing this perennial herbaceous vine is a great option (easy and productive), but only if you live in a warm or tropical climate (preferably between 800 and 1800 m altitude). A single plant can bear 50 to 100 fruits a season. Then you have the opportunity to also use the leafy tips of the tendrils and prepare them like asparagus tips, the leaves like spinach and the fleshy, starchy roots cooked as potatoes.
You can consume it raw or cooked, peeled or not. Peeling can be done before or after cooking. Do take the heart out, as it is very hard. In France they love the Chayotes, either boiled, steamed, braised or put it in the oven. It’s best to cook them for about 10 to 15 minutes till they get soft, but stay slightly crunchy. When used in casseroles, add them 30 minutes before the end of cooking. Vegetarians can roast them with goat cheese or tofu, just delicious. Some people even pickle them.
In Central America and the West Indies you’ll discover them in purees (think potatoes), or eaten as vegetable fritters with fish. They can be eaten raw, with a vinaigrette in refreshing salads, as well as in soups. For a salad, grate them with cabbage, carrots and red onion and serve with a garlic mayonnaise or an olive oil based vinaigrette.
For dessert lovers, cook them as compote with sugar, cinnamon, megnut and dried raisins. Cake lovers, just peel and dice them finely, simmer them in brown sugar syrup and use them in your cake instead of raisins.
Smoothie lovers can add them to their favourite smoothie, the beauty of chayotes is that they take on the flavour of whatever seasoning they’re cooked in. Remember: mild taste, subtle flavour but firm texture! They’re known to retain their firmness and consistency after cooking, freezing, and reheating. They taste like butternut squash/pumpkin, ever so mild, but sweet, with a cucumber- to apple-like flavour, but some might find them bland and watery.
Ethnic populations realised their loads of benefits: a good source of vitamin c, vitamin B-6 and folate (important for cell division, and DNA synthesis), full of dietary fiber, high in potassium, but very low in sodium (ideal for a healthy blood pressure). They contain tons of minerals like iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, and copper and on top of that, also small levels of aspigenin and luteolin, which will fight harmful oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species causing cancer and old age. It is even said they fight anemia. Of course they’re low in calories so they might help people dreaming of weight loss. One chayote contains only 38.6 calories…
Their leaves and fruit have diuretic, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties. The leaves (in tea) are used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension and to dissolve kidney stones.
I made a “gratin” with them:
Here’s the recipe for 6 persons:
- 4 chaotes
- 300 g smoked bacon finely chopped (veggies leave it out or replace it)
- 300 g of parmesan cheese
- 15 g breadcrumbs
- 3 soup spoons of olive oil
- 3 chopped onions
- 1 chili pepper
- 3 soup spoons of chopped parsil
- 2 soup spoons of flour
- 35g butter
- 30 cl cream
- salt and pepper
- Cut the chayotes in halves and boil them in salted water for about 20 minutes.
- Prepare the onions in oil with the bacon, once golden, add 2 soup spoons of parsil and let it simmer.
- Strain the water, peel them, take out the pit and cut them into dices.
- Add them to the onions, mix well and let them bake for another 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add flower, “crème fraiche” / cream and sprinkle it with the chili pepper and 1 soup spoon of parsil.
- Preheat your oven.
- Oil an oven dish and add the mixture, sprinkled with parmesan cheese on top.
- Add small notches of butter on the dish, breadcrumbs, and sprinkle again with parmesan.
- 5 or 10 minutes in the oven will give you a golden brown dish
In Mexico, the chayote has been cultivated since pre-Columbian times, so why not give this ancient, to us new food, a try and don’t forget to write me what you thought about this recipe made with “Buddha’s hand melon”?
I’m for sure going to try to make them in some chili burritos!