By Jim Wilson

Photo by greene

Chayote (pronounced "chy O teh" -- rhyme it with coyote and you'll be close) is the perennial vine Sechium edule. It's a tropical relative of summer squash, and the flavor of the pear-shaped fruits is similar. They store much longer, however, and are harvested in fall, long after your squash vines have faded away or succumbed to squash vine borers.

Prime chayotes have smooth skin with virtually no wrinkles, spines or ropy lines, and no stringy interior fiber. Fruits range in color from ivory white to medium green. Most weigh 1/2 to 1 pound, but some reach nearly 5 pounds. The skin is edible when cooked but it can be quite tough, so is usually peeled off. The fruits remain firm after cooking and can be served as a side dish or used in soups, stir fries, salads or casseroles. The large, tender seed, the leafy tips of the tendrils and the fleshy, starchy roots are also edible when cooked.

Chayote is native to parts of Mexico and Central America, where a great many heirloom varieties can be found. If you scout the major produce markets in California in late summer or fall you can usually find several very different kinds. Chayote is also relatively common and inexpensive throughout Florida and south Texas, as well as in Louisiana, where it's known both as vegetable pear and by its Cajun name of mirliton. In early winter, you can even find a few chayotes displayed -- at a fancy price -- among the tropical fruits at produce counters in the East.

How to Grow Chayote

Gardeners can harvest chayote as far north as USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Plants thrive at lower elevations in California and the Southwest, and in the warmer valleys of Oregon and Washington. In its native tropical climate, where the days and nights are nearer to the same length year-round, chayote bears fruit for several months. Here in the United States, it usually doesn't flower until the first week of September, when nights begin to lengthen perceptibly, and at least a 30-day period of frost-free weather is needed from the time first flowers appear to ripen the fruit. Here in zone 7, I've harvested a dozen fruits from one vine. Where frost comes later, gardeners can expect to harvest two to four dozen fruits per plant.

You can start a couple of chayote vines by sprouting fruits from the grocery store. Select ones with few wrinkles or spines, and the more mature, the better -- small, immature fruits may just rot. A few mail-order companies offer chayote, and in Florida you can sometimes find plants of Florida Green and Monticello White, two cloned varieties, at upscale garden centers.

Lay the fruit on its side in a one-gallon pot of soil and tip the stem up about 45 degrees. Cover the fruit with potting soil or sand until only the tip of the stem shows. Keep the pot in a warm spot (80° to 85° F), and water it occasionally. In about a month, the fruit should begin to split and a sprout will emerge. Move the pot to a sunny area. Let three or four sets of leaves develop, then pinch the tip out of the runner to make it branch.

Prepare a hill for planting by mixing 20 pounds of manure deeply into a 4- by 4-foot area that gets full sun. If you have heavy clay, also mix in a bushel of compost to improve drainage and aeration. In zones 9 and 10, and in low desert areas of the West, choose a spot that give the vines some afternoon shade and protection from drying winds. Don't transplant until all danger of frost is past.

Provide a strong trellis or fence to support the heavy mass of vines that will form during the summer. Vines from old perennial roots can grow 30 feet in a single season. Water your plants deeply every 10 to 14 days during dry weather to avoid excessively stringy fruits. Chayote vines respond especially well to a dose of fish emulsion every two to three weeks. In high-rainfall areas, top-dressing with manure or compost every month will keep the vines growing vigorously. The vines are susceptible to the same insec that attack squash plants, and provide good hiding places for whiteflies. Frequent sprayings with insecticidal soap or neem will minimize insect damage.

Gardeners in zones 8 and warmer can overwinter chayote vines by cutting them back to near ground level and mulching them deeply with a loose material such as pine needles. Root-knot nematodes will probably weaken the vines after two or three years -- just sprout a new fruit. To lessen nematode damage, apply a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of pasteurized cow manure in the spring and replenish it during the summer.

Harvesting and Using Chayote

Chayote fruits can be eaten at any size, but are best when small. Pick them before they begin to split and germinate on the vine, or before the vines are injured by frost. Store fruits by wrapping them individually in newspaper to protect them and keep them from drying out. The best storage temperature is 50 to 55oF. Or, steam and freeze your excess harvest.

Chayote is very versatile. Use it in any dish where you would use cooked summer squash. Steamed and diced, it's particularly good in vegetable or seafood salads. It combines well with fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, dill and fennel, as well as with onions or shallots and garlic. Chayote is also commonly halved and stuffed. (Note: The sticky juice released by the skin can irritate your hands. Try rubbing vegetable oil on them before peeling the fruits.)

I particularly like the following recipes from Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables by Elizabeth Schneider.

Salad of Chayotes, Corn and Tomatoes

This very pretty salad, mellow and slightly tart, should please summer diners (and lunchers).

2 medium chayotes, about 3/4 pound
2 medium ears of corn, husked
6 medium plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons thinly sliced scallion greens
1/3 cup lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup light olive oil
1/3 cup minced parsley

Quarter chayotes and set on a steamer rack ove boiling water; cover and cook until not quite tender -- about 20 to 25 minutes. Set corn on rack during the last 7 to 8 minutes. Let both cool briefly. Peel chayotes and cut flesh into 1/2-inch cubes.

Cut corn kernels from the cob; combine in a bowl with chayotes, tomatoes, and scallions. Blend together lime juice, salt and red pepper flakes. Beat in olive oil. Toss gently with vegetables, then add parsley. Chill until serving time. Serves 6 as a side dish.

Gratin of Chayotes and Potatoes

Traditional creamed potatoes with a few twists.

1 1/4 pounds chayotes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (including the seed)
11/4 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped fine
21/2 tablespoons flour
11/4 cups milk
1/3 cup heavy (or whipping) cream
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
white pepper to taste
3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese

Drop potatoes into pot of boiling salted water. Boil about 2 minutes, until half-cooked. Add chayotes and boil about 3 to 4 minutes longer, until tender. Drain.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan over low heat. Stir in shallots and pepper and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Scoop into dish. In same pan melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add flour and stir for a minute. Add milk and cream and stir with whisk over moderate heat until mixture boils and thickens. Lower heat and stir 2 minutes longer. Return shallots and pepper to pan with sauce; add salt, nutmeg, and white pepper. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup cheese.

Spread potatoes and chayotes in shallow baking dish. Add sauce and mix gently with rubber spatula. Smooth top and sprinkle evenly with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Cover with foil.

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