Are there moments in your life when you're going about your day and out of the blue you have some gustatory memory that you have to re-experience--now? Well, this happens fairly regularly for me but it's been awhile since I've thought of this dish that my mom used to make our family for dinner when I was growing up. But there I was at the market yesterday picking up some garlic and onions and other random items when I was struck by the memory of my mom's chayote squash stuffed with tuna. And then I realized that the chayote squash were in my peripheral vision, stacked up among the produce aisle where I had been scanning my shopping list.
I didn't think twice about grabbing a couple of the squash. Then I had to search my memory for what went into the dish, besides canned tuna (okay, think of this as sort of modestly elevated tuna casserole; I did grow up in the 60s and 70s after all). When all else fails, call Mom. So, she reminded me of how she had made it and off I went home with my ingredients to make the dish.
She also reminded me that this dish actually was something her mother made for her young family when my mom was a girl. Call it a Victory Garden meal. My grandparents had a large enough yard in their East L.A. home during World War II for a sprawling garden that provided most of the produce for the family. Including chayote squash. What else would be affordable for a family of five in the 40s? Canned tuna. So, my Nana came up with this dish and my mom continued it for our family.
If you haven't been exposed to chayote squash, now's the time for an introduction. It's a hard light green pear-shaped fruit with creamy white flesh--like a pear. To be honest, it doesn't have a lot of flavor; it's a little sweet in a bland sort of way. But that makes it the perfect partner for all sorts of powerful ingredients. While you can dice it and saute it, its shape makes it a wonderful vessel for stuffing--once you remove the flesh. And that requires about 20 minutes of par boiling.
My mom pairs it with the canned tuna--along with sauteed onion and garlic, mixed with bread crumbs. In my version I add Dijon mustard as well, along with salt and pepper. And, how did it come out? Actually, even better than I had remembered it. The juices from the tuna. The heavenly sauteed onion and garlic. The spiciness of the mustard. They all married beautifully with the squash, with the crispy oniony, garlicky breadcrumbs the cherry on top. Totally a mom--or Nana--kind of economical comfort food.
Evie's Tuna-Stuffed Chayote Squash
2 chayote squash, sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I like to use Panache Pantry's Vintage Sicilian Wheat)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus another tablespoon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1, 5-ounce can wild albacore tuna (I used Wild Planet's 100% pole and troll caught), drained and flaked
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the squash and boil for 20 minutes or until they're almost fully cooked. Drain and let cool.
2. While the squash halves are cooking, heat olive oil in a skillet and add the onion and garlic. Saute on medium heat until the onion becomes golden and the garlic fragrant. Then add the breadcrumbs. Stir the mixture over the heat until it just begins to brown. Then remove from the heat and spoon the mixture into a small bowl and set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350˚. When the squash halves are cool enough to handle, remove the seed, then use a large spoon to carefully scoop out the flesh. Try not to tear the skin so you have an intact shell. There will probably be water in the remaining shell. Drain it.
4. Chop up the squash flesh and add it to a large bowl. Add the tuna, 3/4 of the onion mixture, the Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
5. Gently stuff the squash shells with the mixture. Top with the remainder of the onion mixture and drizzle with a little olive oil. Place the stuffed shells on a baking sheet or in a baking dish.
6. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes or until the top is brown and crisp.