What the Heck is a Chayote Squash, and What to Drink for Cinco de Mayo?

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These weird little squashes have been staring at me from a bin in the produce section of my grocery store for far too long. I have passed by the bright green chayote squash dozens of times, wondering how to cook them and what they taste like. I finally picked up three of these weird little gourds last week, and I stumped the cashier when I went to check out.

“Excuse me, what is this?”

“Chayote. C-H-A-Y-O-T-E.”

“I don’t see the code for that, are they pears?”

“No, they’re labeled ‘chayote squash’ on the bin. Maybe they’re under ‘squash’?”

asks coworker in next lane: “Do you know the code for these?”

coworker: “No, they look like pears. Charge her for pears.”

Pears were $3.99 per pound that week, and I have no idea how much the chayote were priced per pound. I guess chayote is not a fast-mover at the Carytown Kroger. In the cashiers’ defense, the chayote does look a bit like a pear that is trying to eat itself.

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The chayote originates from Mexico, where the fruit, leaves, blossoms, and roots of the plant are eaten. The squash has a very thin green skin attached to the green-to-white flesh. The skins and seeds are edible, although I found that many recipes call for the skins and seeds to be removed. The flesh is very crisp, and the raw squash has the texture of a potato and a very mild flavor like a broccoli stalk. The chayote can be eaten raw, but it is often cooked and seasoned, or eaten in a sauce with other more flavorful ingredients.

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I found a great vegetarian recipe for Chayotes Rellenos from world-renowned chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, of The Border Grill in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Monica. I had never tried one of their recipes before, so it was an evening of firsts.

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The chayote was very easy to work with. I left the skins on, but boiling caused them to peel off. The texture and flavor of the cooked chayote was similar to summer squash. I loved that this recipe incorporated epazote, and the crunch from the almonds added an unexpected and pleasant texture to the filling, which probably would have been pretty mushy otherwise, due to the cooked squash and mushrooms.

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I topped the cooked stuffed squash with some fresh pea shoots, which were an impulse purchase from Relay Foods. I normally would have tossed some cilantro on there, but I was out (rare occurrence!). One thing that recipes for stuffed squash or eggplant NEVER tell you is what to do with the extra filling. Am I the only one who always has extra filling after stuffing my vegetables?

I put the extra filling in a glass baking dish, topped it with cheese, and baked it at the same time and temperature indicated in the recipe. It worked out great.

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If you’re feeling inspired by Cinco de Mayo and you want to try out a Mexican dish besides tacos or nachos, I suggest that you give chayotes a try. Although they do not pack a ton of flavor on their own, they are very versatile and do soak up the flavors around them. Next I would like to try them in a really spicy curry, topped with chopped fresh mango, and I do not intend to wait for another holiday to do it.

What to Eat on Cinco de Mayo

If you are feeling less ingredient-adventurous but you do still want something Mexican-inspired on your table this week, check out my recipe roundup from last week.

What to Drink with Mexican Cuisine

If you want to branch out from the standard Corona, Sol, or Tecate that are very popular this time of year, head to your local craft beer store. Kyle and I collaborated on this list of brews drink with Latin American food.

For an authentic Mexican beer that is a cut above the rest, seek out Negra Modelo or Bohemia.

For a local Virginia alternative to the Mexican light lager, try Blue Mountain Brewery Lager or Legend Brewing Co Pilsner.

If you like hoppy beers, try Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai or Smuttynose Finestkind IPA.

If you intend to sit on a porch and sip beer for a few hours, pick up Sierra Nevada Summerfest or Lagunitas Daytime.

And if you just want a beer that looks great in a Cinco de Mayo party spread and is refreshing on a warm evening out on the back deck, pick up Breckenridge Brewery Agave Wheat. When you choose a beer that is infused with an iconic Mexican ingredient and labeled with a skeleton wearing a sombrero, you get an A+ for sticking to a theme!

 

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Three Sisters Soup

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I recently discovered the “three sisters” on a trip to Charlottesville. About two months ago, on one of many wedding-planning trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, we stopped into Revolutionary Soup near the downtown mall. I had heard great things about Revolutionary Soup and I had been meaning to try it for years. On a gorgeous September day in Charlottesville with my parents and Kyle, I finally had the opportunity.

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Revolutionary Soup has an extensive menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. There is also a great selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I was impressed by the selection of local beers and ciders. Kyle had a matcha (green tea) flavored soda that he is still talking about, two months later. I think one of Kyle’s greatest regrets in life is not writing down the name of that soda.

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One thing that really impressed me at Revolutionary Soup was this giant diagram that illustrated all of their local vendors on a map of Virginia. This is definitely a feature of my fantasy restaurant now.

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I chose a tofu wrap and a small Three Sisters Soup, which was one of the seasonal specials they offered that day. I had never heard of “three sisters” before, but I learned that the term refers to the trio of squash, beans and corn. Native Americans grew the three crops together, using a technique called companion planting, because each one benefits from the other two. Not only are they a great combination in the garden, but they also taste wonderful together. The soup was a total knockout and I knew I would have to replicate it at home.

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While I was picking up a few things at the grocery store later that week, I saw a giant bin of fall and winter squash. I couldn’t resist taking home this Turks Turban squash. I had never seen a squash like this before, and although I knew nothing about how to prepare it or how it tasted, I decided this would be the squash for my Three Sisters soup. Cutting and seeding it was really difficult due to its odd shape.

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When peeled, chunked, and roasted, the Turks Turban squash is sweet, with a smooth, dense texture. It was fun to use just for the experience and for the look on the grocery store cashier’s face when the odd-shaped squash came gliding down the belt and to her scanner. When I looked up the Turks Turban, I was disappointed to find that it didn’t have great reviews for taste. I tried it anyway and thought it tasted like a cross between a butternut squash and a pumpkin. I thought it was great and had no complaints regarding taste. However, due to the weird shape, the peeling and seeding process was so labor intensive that it wasn’t really worth it. In the future, I think I’ll just use butternut squash instead.

Anyway, enough about the squash. This recipe is all about the soup. I have made three sisters soup three times now, with a different type of squash every time. It is delicious no matter what type of fall or winter squash you include. This soup is hearty enough to stand alone in a big bowl as a main dish, or you could serve a smaller portion with bread and a salad. It would be a nice starter to your Thanksgiving meal. A large pot of it simmered on a Sunday provides an alternative to chili for watching football, or plenty of lunches to reheat throughout the week.

Three Sisters Soup

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 cups cubed, roasted winter squash
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1- 15 oz. can pinto beans
  • 2 cups frozen corn kernels
  • 5 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion, pepper, celery and garlic until onion is translucent.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and bring to a boil.
  4. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 45 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Mediterranean Tempeh and Spinach Stuffed Zucchini Boats

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Zucchini and yellow squash are two of the flavors that always remind me of summer. Just like fresh corn kernels, juicy tomato slices and tangy barbecue sauce, summer squash momentarily transports me to the backyard of my childhood home. I remember chasing fireflies after dinner, while the adults picked crabs and sipped cold beers on the back deck, and the smells of Old Bay, dewy green grass, pool chlorine, and charcoal grills filled the air.

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I remember eating zucchini and squash in one of two ways: grilled on kabobs or sautéed with Vidalia onions, bread crumbs, and grated parmesan cheese. Every once in awhile, I still make squash the second way for company. Each time, without fail, one of our guests tells me their Mom used to make it the same way.  Although the results are delicious, the method of tossing vegetables in butter, breadcrumbs and cheese is not the most nutritious way to prepare fresh produce. For a protein and veggie packed preparation, I turn to stuffed zucchini boats.

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I love this one recipe from Eating Bird Food for Overstuffed Vegetarian Zucchini Boats. One night this week, armed with a package of tempeh and a bag of market fresh spinach, I decided to put my own spin on Brittany’s recipe. My version features a filling made with browned tempeh, sauteed onions and garlic, fresh spinach, chopped olives, tomato sauce, herbs and feta cheese. The hollowed out zucchini and squash boats are stuffed, topped with more cheese (or not, if you’re being super healthy) and baked until bubbly.

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I am finding that as I experiment with more local ingredients, I create my own signature seasonal dishes that will hopefully become new food memories and comforting associations. Stuffed zucchini is quickly becoming a summer standby for me.

Mediterranean Tempeh and Spinach Stuffed Zucchini Boats

(serves 4)

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Ingredients:

  • 4 medium zucchini or other summer squash
  • 4 Tbsp oil, divided
  • 1 – 8 oz. package of tempeh
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp Italian seasoning or mixture of basil and oregano
  • 1-1/2 cups pasta sauce
  • 1 – 4 oz. can of chopped olives, drained
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
  • 4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the squash lengthwise into halves. Scoop out the insides and leave about a 1/4-inch thick wall of flesh on the inside of each half.
  2. Place the squash in a baking dish, skin side down. Brush the squash with about 1 Tbsp of oil. Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes.
  3. Grate the tempeh over a bowl with a large cheese grater. Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add the tempeh and sauté, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 8-10 minutes. Remove the tempeh to a large mixing bowl.
  4. Take the squash innards that you scooped out in step one, and measure about 1 cup of squash. Save the remaining squash for zucchini bread or cookies. Chop the 1 cup of squash into a small dice.
  5. Add 2 Tbsp oil to the small pan and add onions and garlic. Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then add squash to pan and sauté the mixture until tender, about 5 minutes.
  6. To the mixing bowl, add: squash/onion/garlic mixture, spinach, crushed red pepper, seasoning/herbs, pasta sauce, and olives. Add salt and pepper to taste. At this step you can stir in the crumbled feta. For a vegan version, omit the cheese.
  7. When the squash halves are removed from the oven, stuff each “boat” with the filling and top with shredded mozzarella cheese if desired.
  8. Bake the stuffed zucchini at 350 degrees F, uncovered, for about 10 minutes or until filling is bubbly and cheese is melted.

Happy Summer Solstice!