David Hubbell with the fruits of his labor // Photos by Chad Riley
“I have been fascinated with my Louisiana ancestry since my teens,” explains David Hubbell, otherwise known as the Mirliton Man of Mobile. Although born in Houston, Hubbell is descended from French and Germans who arrived in Louisiana in the early 1700s. He wanted his family to know and cherish that heritage, regardless of where they were living, and so one of the things he did was plant a garden. “I began growing mirliton in 2006.”
With fond memories of time spent with his memere (grandmother) in her Louisiana kitchen, the young Hubbell first turned up his nose when introduced to her mirliton stuffed with shrimp. But, with his pepere (grandfather) growing huge vegetable gardens, including these unique vegetable pears, and a maturing of taste buds, Hubbell came to love the odd little squash. “I devoured cookbooks by famous Louisiana chefs and yearned to grow the delicious Creole tomatoes and the mirlitons that my grandparents loved,” he explains.
These lime green, wrinkly, furrowed, pear-shaped squash can be found at local grocery stores, but most shoppers do no more than toss them a quizzical look and move the buggy along. But this Louisiana-favored squash, which also grows well in Mexico under the name chayote, is worth a second look.
The mirliton is part of the cucurbit family and is closely related to squash, cucumber and zucchini. It was introduced to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region by colonists arriving from Caribbean ports in the 1700s. Haitian refugees flooded into Louisiana in 1809 bringing with them this food staple. It quickly became popular with the less-wealthy, largely because one vine can produce over 100 fruits per season. Mirlitons are only one of a few perennial vegetables in North America. Once it is planted, it will produce for decades. In the 20th century, many large families relied on the mirliton to help affordably feed their broods. Since it produces in the fall, the mirliton was a featured star at Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations all along the Gulf Coast.
Some traditional heirloom varieties have been grown in Louisiana for the last 230 years. However, these heirloom varieties were nearly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To prevent their extinction, impassioned mirliton devotees like Hubbell are trying to help others learn how to grow, take care of, cook and acquire these various heirlooms. He credits Dr. Lance Hill of New Orleans (the original Mirliton Man) for inspiring his work.
Above left to right One mirliton vine can produce over 100 fruits. A freshly harvested mirliton can be used in a variety of recipes. David Hubbell’s mirliton garden in West Mobile.
“The first step to growing mirlitons along the coast is to start with a Louisiana heirloom sprout or plant,” he says. Planting the Mexican chayote varieties sourced from the grocery just won’t do. He’s tried. “These store-bought squash are excellent for eating, but not to grow,” Hubbell cautions. “They are a different variety, and even if they sprouted, they could cross-pollinate with preferred heirlooms.” Hubbell was eventually able to acquire some seeds from a Louisiana friend and says they thrived in his West Mobile garden for the last 13 years.
“Each of these heirlooms has a story to tell and a history going back hundreds of years,” he says. “It is impossible for me to hold one of these in my hand and not think of all the individuals responsible for making it possible for me to grow them here in Mobile.” Hubbell tends vines not only in his West Mobile home garden but also at his mom’s Fairhope home, although he admits they don’t do as well over there. Whether it’s the soil or a lack of attention, he isn’t sure. However, he has contacts who have grown them successfully in Springhill, Dothan, Daphne, McIntosh and Millry.
Hubbell prefers to grow the Boudreaux-Robert (the one he named and grows), Miss Clara, Papa Sylvest and Blackledge — all green varieties that thrive along the Gulf Coast.
Pretty much all parts of the plant — shoots, leaves, fruit and seeds — are edible. In Mexico, chayotes are often steamed or boiled. Haitian recipes find them stuffed and made into soups or au gratins.
According to Hubbell, along the Gulf Coast, the green or ivory pear-shaped fruit is typically boiled and scooped out of the shell, where it is either mixed with shrimp, crab, ground beef or pork, seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper and cayenne, and then re-stuffed into the hollowed shells or placed in a casserole dish and covered with bread crumbs before baking. Mirliton flesh can also be used to make bread, dessert pies or even made into pickles. “Since Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans were all originally French colonies, much of our cooking styles are very similar.”
Here in Mobile, Hubbell says a favorite local recipe is David Holloway’s shrimp-stuffed mirliton. Dauphin’s has served sauteed mirliton as a side and the old Kitchen on George featured the tasty mirliton stuffed with crawfish, all very similar to what is found on Louisiana menus.
Even though Hubbell’s family might describe his interest in mirlitons as an obsession, his wife and daughters are willing participants when he prepares and serves his mirliton and shrimp casserole for Christmas dinners. This lowly vegetable pear, with its colorful history from other worlds, can be dressed up nicely to shine deliciously on dinner tables on holidays or any day, from New Orleans to Mobile. mb
Part of the cucurbit family, and is closely related to squash, cucumber and zucchini
Arrived from Caribbean ports in the 1700s
Start with a Louisiana heirloom sprout or plant. Store-bought squash are excellent for eating, but not
One vine can produce over 100 fruits per season. Mirlitons are only
one of a few perennial vegetables in North America.
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups mirliton, cooked, seeded and pureed
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a large loaf pan. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, then pureed mirliton and mix well.
2. In a separate bowl, sift dry ingredients together. Add to mirliton mixture and mix well. Mix in chopped nuts and vanilla. Bake for 90 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the middle comes out clean. Cool slightly in the pan, then turn out on a wire rack to cool completely.
Cook’s note: This recipe can also make 12 muffins. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees, or until brown on top.
Mirliton, Andouille, and Gulf Shrimp Dressing
5 medium mirlitons
T-Roy’s Swamp Shake
3 links of Hall’s Sausage Andouille, diced
1/2 cup butter
1 small onion, diced
1 1/2 celery ribs, diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/2 orange or red bell pepper, diced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
3/4 lbs medium Gulf shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 green onion, diced
4 cups Rouses’ or Pollman’s French bread, cubed and lightly toasted
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8” x 8” x 2” casserole dish or 12 ramekins with butter and set aside. Cut unpeeled mirlitons in half and submerge in a pot of water adding 1/2 tablespoon T-Roy’s Swamp Shake. Boil for 30 minutes, or until you can insert a knife into the flesh. Drain and cool.
2. Using spoon, discard seeds and transfer the flesh to a mixing bowl, draining some but not all liquid that accumulates.
3. Brown Hall’s Sausage – Andouille in a black frying pan. Drain on paper towel, reserving 1/2 tablespoon of the rendered drippings.
4. In a large pot over medium heat, melt butter with andouille drippings. Add onions, celery and bell peppers, cooking until tender, about 5-10 minutes. Add garlic and herbs and cook some more. Add
andouille back to pot.
5. Add the shrimp and 1/2 teaspoon of T-roy’s Swamp Shake and chicken stock. Cook until shrimp are just pink and cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove bay leaves and stir in green onion.
6. Remove pot from heat and add mirliton pulp and toasted bread cubes. Stir with a wooden spoon until bread is moist but not too wet. Adjust seasoning by adding 1/2 teaspoon increments of T-Roy’s Swamp Shake, tasting in between. If needed, add extra salt. If dressing is too wet add some plain bread crumbs.
7. Distribute dressing in dishes and cover with foil. Bake 50 minutes or until bubbling around edges. Remove foil and sprinkle with additional plain bread crumbs and continue cooking until browned, about 30 more minutes.
Smoked Boudin Stuffed Mirlitons
12 Side Servings or 6 Dinner Servings
6 – Louisiana mirlitons
1/3 cup chopped white onion
2/3 chopped green onion
¾ cup chopped bell pepper (mix of green and red)
¼ cup minced garlic
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup bacon grease
¼ cup salted butter
1 pound The Best Stop smoked boudin – with a low rice/meat ratio or a good River Parish boudin
½ cup Italian bread crumbs
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
Dash of white powder
2 – 3 dashes of Tabasco
1 egg that has been beaten
Capful of liquid crab boil
1. Cut mirlitons in half and place in a pot with enough water to cover. Add a capful of liquid crab boil and a few dashes of salt. Boil for 20-30 minutes until mirlitons are easy to pierce with a knife much like when checking on a boiled potato.
2. Remove mirliton halves from water and allow to cool and drain.
3. Once cooled, remove the seed and discard. Then gently scoop out the soft pulp so as not to damage the shell and drain in a colander. Be sure to check for any hard fibrous pieces.
4. Set aside shells for stuffing.
5. Melt the bacon drippings and butter in black cast iron pan.
6. Add the white and green onions, then the bell pepper, garlic, and parsley and sauté until the vegetables are wilted, about 5 minutes.
7. Add the smoked boudin and sauté an additional 5 minutes.
8. Add drained mirliton pulp, salt, black pepper, white pepper, and Tabasco. Cook an additional 10 minutes. Add bread crumbs if mixture is too watery.
9. Remove from fire and stir the mixture thoroughly.
10. Stir in beaten egg.
11. Fill 8 to 10 shells with mixture then sprinkle bread crumbs on top.
12. Bake in a 375 deg F oven until breadcrumbs are browned, about 15 minutes.
2 pounds (70–90 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup butter
2 cups diced onions
1 cup diced celery
½ cup sliced green onions
¼ cup minced garlic
¾ cup flour
3 quarts chicken stock
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 cup half-and-half
½ cup chopped parsley
salt and black pepper to taste
granulated garlic to taste
Louisiana hot sauce to taste
1. Slice mirlitons in half lengthwise. Boil in lightly salted water until tender but not overcooked. Remove from heat and cool under tap water. Peel, remove seeds and dice into ¼-inch cubes. Reserve approximately 1 cup of cubes for garnish. Mash or purée remaining mirliton and set aside.
2. In a Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, green onions and minced garlic. Sauté 3–5 minutes or until vegetables are wilted. Stir in mashed mirliton and half of shrimp. Continue to sauté 5–10 minutes or until mirliton is well blended and shrimp are pink and curled. Sprinkle in flour and mix well.
3. Add chicken stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly until a soup-like consistency is achieved.
4. Bring to a low boil, reduce to simmer and cook 20–30 minutes, stirring often. Add remaining shrimp and mushrooms then blend in half-and-half and parsley. Cook an additional 5 minutes or until shrimp are done.
5. Season to taste using salt, pepper, granulated garlic and hot sauce. When serving, garnish each bowl with a tablespoon of diced mirlitons.
Chef’s note: Mirlitons, commonly called chayote squash, are useful because they pick up the flavor of other ingredients in a dish. In this soup, the mirlitons not only absorb and enhance the taste of the shrimp, but also smooth out the texture of the finished product. By using light margarine, defatted chicken stock, and evaporated milk, this recipe still has all the flavor with a fraction of the calories.
Makes 6 Jars
8 large mirlitons
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons coarse salt, such as kosher
2 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoons coriander powder
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
6 pods of whole Tabasco pepper
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
3 whole allspices
½ cap liquid crab boil
1. Slice the peeled mirlitons lengthwise cutting out the seed. Peel the mirlitons and cut them around ¼-inch thick sticks.
2. In a large pot over high heat, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a rolling boil. Add mirliton sticks, lower heat when liquid returns to a boil, simmering for 5 minutes. Pierce the mirliton with a fork. It should be slightly tender on the outside but crisp on the inside.
3. Remove the mirlitons from the pickling juice and drain in a sieve. Reserve pickling solution.
4. Line up 6 pint-sized Mason jars that have been cleaned and prepped for pickling in a hot water bath. Using tongs, place the mirliton sticks standing in the jars and pack tightly.
5. Evenly divide the whole tabasco peppers, garlic slices, and bay leaves into the jars. Divide the pickling juice evenly between the jars. If more liquid is needed, add water and cider vinegar to ensure that all surfaces of the mirlitons are immersed in juice. Cover tightly and return to water bath.
6. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Remove jars from the heat and let them cool until they “plink”. Let stand for a minimum of one week before serving.