When I start to spy with my little hungry eye roadside-spot prawn trucks and get calls from fishermen that they’re bringing in the first hauls of gorgeous Alaska spot prawns, I do a little happy dance.
Over the years, I’ve shared recipes here for BBQ shrimp; grilled prosciutto-wrapped shrimp; brown butter shrimp; and more. Lately, since I’ve been seeing mirlitons in the produce section of Carr’s Safeway, Fred Meyer and Sagaya stores, I decided to go back to a favorite recipe that my grandfather always made.
Mirlitons are known as vegetable or “alligator” pears in Louisiana; others call this pale green, delicate-flavored gourd “chayote.” My grandfather used to stuff the squash with ham or tasso and shrimp or sweet lumps of crabmeat. Years later, when I visited Les Saintes in the French Caribbean, I fell hard for a basic “gratin of christophines,” a simple and delicious dish of puréed mirliton topped with cheese and breadcrumbs and baked until golden. Mirlitons or chayote are worth seeking out, but if you can’t find them, substitute green bell peppers or slice yellow squash and sauté with the rest of the ingredients into a casserole and bake. The stuffing is also good to bake on top of cod or halibut fillets.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 large, firm mirlitons, free of blemishes (or green bell peppers or yellow squash; see note above)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) chopped pancetta or bacon (optional)
1/2 cup diced shallot or onion
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon low-sodium Creole or Cajun seasoning
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3/4 to 1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs (or homemade)
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) peeled, deveined and coarsely chopped wild shrimp (or lump crabmeat)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
Dash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Crystal
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place mirlitons in a large pot of water set over high heat; bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and let cook 25 to 30 minutes or until very tender (but not falling apart) when pierced with a knife. Drain mirlitons and, when cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise and remove the soft pit from center. Using a teaspoon, gently scoop out flesh from each half, leaving about a 1/4-inch layer of squash, and being careful not to pierce the shell. Drain scooped-out squash of any excess liquid; set aside.
Place each scooped half, cut-side down, onto a lightly greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish (or larger, depending on size of mirliton). Lightly season inside shell with salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Turn shells over and lightly season with more salt and pepper; leave them cut-side down so any excess liquid will drain out. Roast at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. While shells are roasting, make the filling.
2. Coarsely chop reserved mirliton. Heat oil in a large pan over medium high heat. Add pancetta, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, one minute. Add onion and cook, stirring often, about two minutes. Add green onion and reserved cooked mirliton and cook about one minute. Add garlic, parsley, lemon juice, Creole seasoning, cayenne, and stir; add 3/4 cup breadcrumbs and stir. Taste and add more salt, pepper, lemon juice or garlic, as needed. Remove pan from heat and stir in chopped shrimp and a few dashes of hot sauce. Add a bit more lemon juice or water if mixture is dry. If too wet, add up 1/4 cup more breadcrumbs and mix to combine. Mixture should be moist but not too wet. Remove mirliton shells from oven and spoon a generous amount of shrimp mixture into each shell. Top each half with a pat of butter. If there’s no liquid in the baking dish, pour about 1/4 cup water in bottom of pan. Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 15 to 20 minutes or until top is golden and bubbling. Serve, if desired, with more hot sauce, lemon wedges and fresh chopped parsley.