Until recently, we celebrated Christmas back home in New Orleans. The upside: being with family and enjoying all the wonderful holiday traditions we grew up with. The downside: orchestrating Santa’s arrival in another city! Now, for obvious reasons, we have Christmas in Georgia. It’s bittersweet. While we love waking up in our own home on Christmas morning, we all miss sharing this special day with the rest of our family. So I’ve begun a few new holiday rituals to keep homesickness at bay. For one, we party on Christmas Eve just like we would if we were at Uncle Barry’s (my mom’s brother who has an annual open house to bring our large, extended family together). We prepare a big spread of picking food and hang out with each other over cocktails (for me and the hubby of course) and Shirley Temples (for the kids). We listen to lots of Christmas music, play board games (all 20-something of them) and end the evening, early, with a movie. The rituals continue through Christmas day with the preparation of a big holiday dinner complete with all of our hometown favorites, including Stuffed Mirlitons with Shrimp and Tasso.
A mirliton (locally pronounced mel-a-tawn) is a small, pale green, pear-shaped gourd with a funky little puckered end that resembles a Muppet’s grin. They’re more commonly known as chayotes outside of south Louisiana. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, mirliton vines grew wild all over New Orleans. When I was a kid, we never had to buy them. If they weren’t growing in our backyard, we’d go pick them from our neighbor’s. We always had plenty to cook, eat and share from late October through the end of December, which is one of the reasons why they’ve become a major part of our holiday table.
Mirlitons, especially perfectly ripe ones, are hard to find in north Georgia. But as you can see by my pics, I hit the jackpot at Publix. Aren’t they gorgeous? Like any squash, they can be fried, baked, sautéed, pickled, creamed or pureed. I love them stuffed. The subtle sweetness of the mirliton blends well with the delicate flavor of the shrimp and the smokiness of the tasso. Tasso is another “homegrown” favorite. It’s a heavily seasoned, cured and smoked ham. If you can’t find any in your area, simply substitute chopped ham or any type of sausage. Same goes for the mirlitons. If your grocer doesn’t carry them, you can always apply this recipe to yellow crookneck squash, zucchini or eggplant.
Preparing Stuffed Mirlitons with Shrimp and Tasso for Christmas dinner is my way of preserving a special food tradition–one that will always keep my family’s hearts and bellies close to home. Maybe someday this recipe will become a part of your family’s holiday traditions.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Stuffed Mirlitons with Shrimp and Tasso Recipe
4 medium to large mirlitons
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 8-ounce package tasso, chopped
1 pound small (41 or higher count) to medium (26-40 count) shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
1 1/2 cups Italian bread crumbs, divided
FOR SEASONING MIX: In a small bowl, thoroughly combine seasoning mix. Set aside.
FOR MIRLITONS: Place whole mirlitons in a large pot of cold, salted water. Bring water to a boil; cook mirlitons in boiling water until just fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and cool. Once mirlitons are cool enough to handle, slice each one in half; remove and discard seeds. Gently scoop out pulp, leaving skins intact with enough meat to hold its form. Drain mirliton shells upside down on paper towels. Chop pulp into bite-size pieces; place in a colander to drain. Set aside shells and pulp.
FOR STUFFING: In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter with the olive oil. Add onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic; sauté until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add tasso; sauté until tasso begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in shrimp; cook until shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Add seasoning mix and reserved mirliton pulp. Cook an additional 5 minutes. Remove shrimp and tasso mixture from heat. Stir in 1 cup bread crumbs to absorb the liquid (mixture should be moist but not runny; may need to add more bread crumbs). Adjust seasoning if necessary.
CONSTRUCT: Spoon shrimp and tasso mixture evenly into mirliton shells. Place stuffed mirlitons in a large, lightly greased baking dish. Sprinkle tops with reserved breadcrumbs and butter. At this point, the stuffed mirlitons can be wrapped individually in plastic wrap, placed in freezer bags and frozen for later use. Simply thaw them at room temperature before baking.
BAKE: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place stuffed mirlitons in a large, lightly greased baking dish. Fill the shells with the shrimp and tasso mixture; sprinkle the tops evenly with remaining bread crumbs. Dot each mirliton with a small pat of butter. Bake, uncovered, until bubbly and tops are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serves 8.