by Joe Berrigan, Savannah, GA.
As we near the holiday season, thoughts often turn to family and friends and the foods of home. Many travelers have brought seeds with them from their native land, and one can see many fine gardens of chiltipin and jalapeno peppers as one travels around Savannah. What one does not often see, however, are the copious vines of the chayote squash, with its tiny yellow flowers and numerous pale green fruit. Finally, after many years of failure, the author is seeing the fruit of his labors rewarded with a plentiful crop of this tropical vegetable. His suegro, Fernando Cuquet Jr., would be proud to see the spreading vines of his youth in New Orleans duplicated in the low country of Georgia.
Chayote, or mirliton as it is known in Louisiana, begins its life cycle in the fruit that is born by a vine. The chayote growing in the author’s garden began their life in a groceria in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico where the fruit was purchased in February, 2015. It traveled in luggage through agricultural inspection at Hartsfield International Airport, and made its way to Whitemarsh Island, Chatham County, where it took up residence in a dark, lower drawer of a kitchen cabinet. Much like a potato, its sprouts are born in darkness.
After several (4-6) weeks of lying dormant, the green fruit began to show patches of black on the outside where it was beginning to decompose. It also showed signs of life from within, as it sent the white shoot of a future plant sprouting forth from its bottom. After another week or so of growth in the dark drawer, the chayote was ready to begin its life in the cool soil of late March/early April Chatham County, Georgia.
It is very important to select an almost totally sunny spot to grow the chayotes, as they will need sunshine for six full months before they produce the first fruit. Less sun than that may lead to a nice vine, but no fruit.
The author’s garden was formed by gathering several bags of old leaves from his mother’s house in north Georgia, and forming them into a mound. A wild chayote vine was growing on a volcanic mountainside in Panama when seen back in 2011, and if chayote will grow wild like that, why not try it with a little cultivation? A hole is dug about a foot deep, and the chayote is placed in the hole, with the new shoot barely peaking out of the top.
The care of the chayote plant is rather simple: keep the area free of weeds, water it occasionally, and do not over-fertilize. The author killed a flourishing plant a few years ago with an overdose of blue garden fertilizer. Sunshine and water is all that’s necessary.
Before the vine starts growing in earnest, it is good to have a trellis of bamboo or some other long poles ready to accept its spreading vines. The more area available for the vines, will give the gardener more fruit in the fall. If it appears that the vines are growing wild in late September, the gardener might consider pinching of the new growth, making a little chayote soup, and encouraging the plant to put on flowers and not more vine.
Flowers will begin the form when the weather begins to cool in September and October. As with any squash, the fruit should grow quickly and be ready in a couple weeks after the flowers appear. Good luck with bringing the food from home into your own Savannah garden!
CHAYOTE SOUP with CHICKEN
1 chayote (12 oz.) or 12 ounces zucchini
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 white onion (6 oz.), peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 fresh jalapeño chiles (1 1/2 oz. total), rinsed, stemmed, and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 cups fat-skimmed chicken broth
1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 can (15 oz.) garbanzos, rinsed and drained
4 boned, skinned chicken breast halves (6 oz. each), rinsed
1 firm-ripe avocado (8 oz.), pitted, peeled, and sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 cups hot cooked rice
1. Rinse chayote and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (you can cut through or remove edible seed).
2. Set a 5- to 6-quart pan over high heat. When hot, add oil, onion, garlic, chiles, and cumin; stir until onion begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes (including juice), garbanzos, and the chayote; bring to a boil.
3. Add chicken in a single layer, pushing down to submerge in liquid. Return to a boil, then cover pan tightly and remove from heat. Let stand until chicken is no longer pink in center of thickest part (cut to test), 15 to 17 minutes. With tongs, lift chicken out. Return soup to a boil over high heat; if chayote is not tender, simmer, covered, until tender when pierced. Cut chicken breasts crosswise into thick slices, leaving pieces next to each other; with a wide spatula, transfer each sliced breast half to a wide bowl.
4. Ladle soup into bowls. Distribute avocado and cilantro over chicken and garnish with lime wedges to squeeze over servings. Add salt to taste. Serve with rice to spoon into soup.