Recipe for Calabacita (Zucchini-or-Other-Green-Summer-Squash-Squash Casserole)

SOME PEOPLE call this dish Calabacitas, but I grew up using the singular version of the name. Really, the name matters little. It’s about the ingredients and how you cook them.

The name, of course, is the diminutive form of “calabaza,” which in Spanish means both squash and pumpkin (or gourd), although, my dictionary tells me, squash can also be “cidracayote,”  a strange word. Even stranger would be “cidracayotita,” wouldn’t it! 

Calabacita soup (with no meat).

The use of the suffixes “ito” and “ita” doesn’t always indicate a diminutive size, though. Often, it adds a nuance of affection, or it softens the meaning of the word. I think that is the case in this instance. When we say “calabacita,” we are not necessarily speaking of a small squash; we are simply telling the world how dear this dish is to us. And that is certainly what it is to me. Calabacita, mole and chorizo are my favorite among the many delicious dishes my mother used to make. 

My mother always made this dish with either chicken or pork. I’ve heard of others using beef but I’ve never tried it. I’ve made it with shrimp (I imagine it would work nicely with scallops also; I must try that one of these days) and lately, I’ve been leaving the meat out altogether. The richness of the flavors of the squash interacting with the corn and together flirting like crazy with the spices is so beautiful that you don’t even realize you’re having a meatless dish. 

OK, SO HERE’S how you do this:

Place some cooking oil in a deep frying pan and place it on a burner set at medium heat. Take a quarter of a white onion, or slightly more, and chop it up and place it in the pan to sauté, along with three of four garlic cloves, chopped finely. Of course, you can use yellow onion, if you prefer. I always use white for the same reason I use Tide and Colgate: because that’s what my mother used.

If you don’t have any whole garlic, don’t worry about it. You can always add garlic later, when you add the other spices (you can use garlic powder if you don’t have whole garlic).

If you’re going to use meat, add it to the pan at this point (after you’ve sprinkled salt and pepper all over it) and let it brown, then add the zucchini and/or squash, which you have already diced or sliced (the smaller the cubes and the thinner the slices, the quicker it will cook). I prefer to use both green and yellow squash, mainly because I like how the yellow looks; it keeps it from getting too monotonously green. How many, you ask? I’d say at least two yellow, two zucchini and two other green squash. This will give you a hearty dish, enough for several people and, maybe, if you’re lucky, enough for leftovers too. This is one of those dishes that tastes even better when reheated.

Add salt and pepper. Health nuts won’t like this, but this dish requires more salt than your average Mexican dish. I don’t know why. It just does, and I don’t argue with it.

I’LL PROBABLY forget so I’ll tell you right now: keep stirring the pot constantly throughout. Also, the squash has a lot of moisture, which will be released as you cook, but if the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add about a half-cup of water. 

Now chop up about half a cup of red or yellow red pepper and add it to the mixture. You can use green peppers but I like red or yellow (or orange) for the same reason I like to add a yellow squash: aesthetics! 

Peel and chop or slice five or six tomatillos and toss those in. Tomatillos are optional but I’ve found that they add a nice tangy taste to the dish, so I try to use them whenever possible. 

If you have cilantro lying around, take about a quarter cup and chop it finely before adding it to the mixture. If you don’t have any, don’t worry about. I love cilantro but sometimes it can be overrated. 

Add one medium tomato, chopped. If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, use canned tomatoes. I sometimes like to make this dish a bit more Italian by adding a whole can of chopped tomatoes along with a good helping of chopped fresh basil.

I told you not to forget to stir!

NOW IT’S TIME for the spices. Take about a teaspoon of cumin seeds and about two tablespoons of Mexican oregano and place it in a molcajete with a bit of water and ground to a nice, smooth, slightly watery paste. If you forgot to add garlic at the beginning, add the garlic cloves to the other spices before grinding them up. (If you have any dried epazote in your spice rack, toss some of that in also.) Pour all of this into the pan and stir to mix well. After a few minutes of cooking, taste some of the juice and if it seems a bit bland, add more cumin. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much cominos. 

Now add a can of sweet corn, along with its juice. I’ve used fresh corn and I like the taste but I’m not a big fan of the messy process of getting the kernels off the cob. It’s just not worth it to me, but if you’re a purist, have at it.

Other things you can add but you don’t have to:

  • Sliced mushrooms.
  • One or two whole Serrano chiles (make sure they don’t burst in the cooking process or you’ll end up with a very spicy dish; just leave them whole and serve them to the person in your family or party who likes to brag about liking his food hot. Yes, it’s usually a male!)
  • Red pepper flakes.
  • One chipotle pepper from a can, chopped finely. (I wouldn’t use all three – Serranos, pepper flakes and chipotles. Choose one.)
  • Sliced black olives. Not too many. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish with them.

OK, THAT ABOUT does it for ingredients. Now it’s simply a matter of letting it all cook and simmer until the squash is mushy. Or “mooshy,” as Pati Jinich says! If you feel or hear a crunch when you bite into a piece of zucchini, you haven’t cooked it enough.

Once it’s cooked, let it sit for about 15 minutes to cool off a bit, then serve. If it’s soupy, use bowls. Enjoy with either corn or flour tortillas (I prefer corn). If you like, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over it.

If you don’t eat it all, here’s what you can do with the leftovers:

  • Reheat it and eat it, in a taco, or with a spoon or fork.
  • Make a pie out of it, using the double frozen pie shells you can find at HEB. Just make sure you drain it well before you place in the pie shell.
  • Remove all the meat (if you used meat) and place it in the blender along with some crema mexicana or milk or yogurt and blend until you have a nice, smooth creamy soup that you can serve either cold or hot.
  • Cook some bell pepper halves in the oven or in boiling water. Let them cool a bit then fill them with warm calabacita then top with whatever cheese you desire. Place in the oven until the cheese melts.
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Poem: Las Virgenes

To commemorate National Poetry month, here is the last of the four poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Las Virgenes

Las Vírgenes

La Virgen de San Juan del Vallewas my madrina

She baptized me. Juan Diego stood in for Joseph.

She gave me candy and cookies whenever I visited. 

She and Victor, her second husband, would take 

my sisters and me to see movies. Her favorite

was “Around the World in Eighty Days”  

because it featured Cantinflas and he made her

laugh even if he too spoke only English.

La Virgen went unnoticed until the lights were dimmed

and her halo began to glow in the darkened theater.

It was embarrassing and each time my sisters and I

swore we’d never return, but we liked the free movies.

My parents wanted La Virgen de Guadalupeto baptize

me but she had no papers and could not cross the border. 

Juan Diego did immigrate, eventually, and he became

my uncle when he married Tía Rosa. He lured her 

from Fermín while Fermín was out in the fields cutting

spinach. Fermín looked like Hitchcock but walked 

like Charlie Chaplain. Se la robó, my grandmother

would chuckle: he stole her away from poor Fermín.

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Poem: María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

To commemorate National Poetry Month, here is the third of four of my poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. This is one in a series of poems about my childhood neighborhood in which I write about some of the real people (and real events) while imagining them as Mexican legends.

María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

When she wasn’t making movies, María Félix lived

across the street from us. I visited her often. 

She was kind and always had candy around.

One day I mentioned I’d learned a poem 

for Doña Herminia’s escuelitaand she begged me 

to recite it for her. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t 

say no to this beloved Mexican matinee idol 

with Bette Davis curls, so I delivered the poem 

for her with as much passion as I could muster. 

When I finished, María Felix laughed heartily 

and, eyebrows arching like seagull wings, 

she clapped and murmured, ¡Ay, que bonitoQue lindo!   

The next morning I had a fever. I didn’t go 

to school and stayed in bed all day, the next day, and 

the day after that. When mamátold her about me, 

María Félix exclaimed, Pobre niño, he recited 

his beautiful poem for me and I laughed 

and I applauded with joy but I failed to touch him!So

María Felix rushed to my bedside with a brown egg 

from one of her backyard hens. She passed it 

over my burning body as Padre Nuestros

glided from her pouty ruby lips. I blushed 

when I became aroused as she passed it near my crotch, 

but she pretended not to notice. When done, she asked 

for a glass of water. I thought she would drink it. 

Instead, she cracked the egg into the glass and left it 

on a bedside stand. She kissed me on the forehead, 

then left, saying she had a new movie shoot                                            

near Durango, with Jorge Negrete. 

I lay there and stared at the egg for hours until

its golden eye rose lazily to the top then begin 

to rise, like a balloon. It hovered above the glass 

for a few seconds then sailed towards me. 

I reached to grab, not really knowing what I’d do 

with it, but it darted away, like a hummingbird, 

just out of reach, where it floated. And then it winked. 

Once. Twice. 

And, like a moth, my fever fluttered out the window 

into the night. I never saw María Felix again.

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Another poem

TO COMMEMORATE National Poetry Month, I am posting the second of four of my poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of “Fifth Wednesday Journal.”

Impermanence

We rode north each May, straight 

through Texas and the prairies of Oklahoma, 

Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, 

stopping only for gas, pit stops 

and bags full of burgers from roadside 

diners. Dusk was the hardest, loneliest. 

The looming darkness forced us 

into the world where silence

retreats to review its secrets,

making us strangers together 

in a rolling time capsule.

The sun’s departure brought an end 

to the banter and ushered in meditation. 

I became obsessed with the families 

in houses along the road, notroaming 

gypsies in rolling metal cocoons; 

blessed with the privilege of permanence.

As blackness covered the land, I would close 

my eyes until the drone of the V-8 

and the taca-ta-taca of tires ticking off 

concrete squares coaxed me to sleep. 

Throughout the night I awakened 

to the sweet smell of black coffee poured 

from the thermos into the plastic cup 

cradled by the sure hand of the driver – 

my father or Norberto, my brother. 

Or the whiff of the seductive scent 

of a matchstick’s orgasmic burst 

and it’s predictable glowing kiss 

on hopeful cigarette lips. 

Or the intoxicating fumes of fuel 

flowing into the battered and muddy side

of the green Plymouth as the pump’s pings 

counted out the gallons of gasoline.

Each time I asked, “Donde estamos?” 

But it didn’t really matter where we were. 

What I really sought/yearned for was 

the reassurance of a familiar voice. 

“Wichita,” would come the whispered reply. 

Or, “Watertown,” or “Ada,” or “Fargo.” 

Comforted anew, I’d go back to sleep, 

until the next time we stopped. 

Occasionally I’d awaken 

to a darkened stillness as the car 

set motionless on the side of the road: 

my father and Beto had driven 

as far as they could and it was time to pay 

nature the due it had been denied. 

Only the chirping of crickets 

in the grass by the road and the yelping 

of dogs from an unseen farm 

competed with the sounds of slumber. 

Then, from a distance came first the hum, 

then the rumble, then the violent roar 

of a tractor-trailer. When it passed, the car 

nodded and rocked in acknowledgement, 

causing somebody up front to shift positions, 

causing someone next to me – Carmen? 

Dora? Mariana? – to do the same. All 

would be quiet again until the next hum, 

rumble and roar produced the same effect: 

another shift, another elbow or knee digging 

into my side: reminders, even as we slept, 

of our impermanence. When the sun rose at last, 

we were rolling again and my bewildered eyes 

could see a new, flatter terrain. The fresh day 

found us closer to our familiar summer home 

with its black land and silvery grain elevators. 

I was once more in our reality, cradled

in the stale nurturing warmth of our hulking 

sedan. “Ya mero?” one of us asked. 

, almost there,“ one of us replied.

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A poem

IN HONOR OF National Poetry Month, I am posting the first of my four most recently published poems. They appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of “Fifth Wednesday Journal.” Enjoy. Or not.

Al Norte

It’s early spring / and I’ll soon hear / the tweet-zeets / of the cedar waxwings.

They come / from who-knows-where / to feast on the red / berries on the tree

outside my bedroom window. / They’re here for a few days, / long enough to strip / the tree of its shiny fruit.

they come in droves, / chattering, no doubt / commenting on the quality / of the year’s vintage.

Then they are gone, headed / north in search of more trees / with beautiful berries. Up north. / Al norte, what we said as kids

to describe what we did / every summer, in search of work. / We’re going up north. / We’ve been up north.

That was all we needed to say. / Everybody understood. / And, like birds, we knew why: / The shiny fruit beckoned.

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Let me tell you about Fina, my sister

MY BROTHER Alejandro put it best: Ya comenzó a desgranarce la mazorca (the cob has begun to shed its kernels).

He was talking about the significance of the death last Sunday of my sister, Delfina García, in her California home. Fina represented one of the granos bonded ever so tightly to the Palomo mazorca for a long time. For more than half a century, in fact: the last time we lost a sibling was in 1966, when my brother Norberto (Beto) died in a car accident.

Given that all of us are getting old (I’m the youngest and I will turn 73 in July), we’ve all known that sooner or later one of us would be the first grain to push off from the cob – the first autumn leaf to let go of this tree we call life. But knowing is one thing, experiencing a loss is quite another. No one and no experience can ever prepare you for the death of a loved one, and so Fina’s last breath was, and is, painful.

But I don’t want to dwell on the pain and the sense of loss. Today I want to tell you about Fina, the third of the nine children produced by the marriage of Martina López and Domingo Palomo. (Manuel, the second oldest, died when he was seven years old.) Still here are María Luisa (who will turn 90 in June), Alejandro, Mariana, Dora, Carmen, and me.

Rolling out a tortilla

FINA WAS A hustler, a fighter and a protector. As a young tomboyish girl, she ruled over the neighborhood, fiercely defending her brothers from real or perceived bullies. 

“What I remember most about her was how she would love to play with us kids back in our days of our youth,” recalls cousin Mike Palomo of Harlingen. 

“She was a ringleader,” he says. “Most of the time she would decide what game we were going to play. She was very athletic; she could outrun any of the boys and I suppose she could’ve whupped ‘em too if she wanted to but that never happened, thank goodness.”

Actually, it did happen. One of the favorite family stories was of how Fina beat up and sent home crying a neighborhood kid named Tomás because she thought he was picking on my brother Jando. (That kid’s last name was Rivera and he went on to become a famous Chicano writer and chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.)

“She protected me, always,” Jando told me a while ago. “In her eyes, I could do no wrong, so she was always there to protect me.”

As Mike points out, she was athletic. She could beat most everyone in the neighborhood at most childhood games and pastimes, from canicas (shooting marbles) to trompos (spin tops), huilas (kite flying) and shooting slingshots and BB guns. (Even in her older years, after she retired and moved to Texas with Pedro, her husband, she would keep a BB gun near her at all times so she could scare off any stray cat or dog who dared come into her yard to poop.)

Fina was a doer of things she wasn’t supposed to do. As a child she once found out that someone had given my grandfather a box of cigars so she started sneaking into his house to smoke a cigar, one a day until they were all gone. 

One day she went with a friend to Longoria’s, a nearby grocery store, where the friend took items from the shelf and told the owner to put them on her grandmother’s tab. So Fina started doing the same thing, buying stuff and charging them to her friend’s grandmother’s tab, until the grandmother noticed all the extra charges and complained to Longoria, who had assumed Fina was the old woman’s granddaughter too.

Years later, Fina offered a rationale for her actions. She explained that my grandmother had asked her once to walk to Longoria’s, about a mile away, to buy a pound of carne the puerco. When Fina asked Longoria for the pork, he replied, “Sorry, we don’t have any pork, we just have carne de marrano.”

So she went home to tell abuelita there was no pork at the store.

Mi hijita, she said, puerco, marranoes la misma cosa!

So back to the store she had to go. I think any of us Palomo kids would have wanted to screw Longoria after that. Only Fina had the guts to actually do it, and feel perfectly justified to do it.

“That is why I stole from el viejo chingao,” Fina explained. Porque era muy malo!

Because she and Luisa were among the oldest of my grandparents’ grandkids, and because we lived next door to the old folks, they were called upon almost daily to walk to Longoria’s or other merchants to pick up things, from groceries to ice to kerosene, regardless of the weather. 

(During all those years, Fina dreamed about having a little red wagon she could use to haul the stuff. She never got one. But many years later, after she’d retired, she saw one at a store and bought it so she could have the wagon she could never have as a kid. She was proud of that little red wagon.)

FINA QUIT SCHOOL after the fifth grade then she and Luisa lied about their ages to get a job at the new Del Monte cannery that had just opened up in Crystal City. They made 40 cents an hour but the money they earned was more than our family had ever seen. 

Not long after, Luisa led a drive to bring in a union to represent the workers and they staged a strike. They were all promptly fired, so Luisa and Fina and several of their friends, walked to the other side of town where they got at jobs at a smaller cannery.

The money they earned became particularly useful because it was around that time that my father quit his steady job with the railroad, took up drinking and pretty much abandoned his paternal responsibilities. 

Had it not been for Fina and Luisa, we would have never had the large house I grew up in, which was one of the largest in the neighborhood. Fina and Luisa designed the house and bought the material and paid my grandfather to build it. And Fina helped him, even climbing onto the steep roof to help lay shingles.

Fina loved working with her hands, whether it was gardening or building and repairing things. In her retirement, she owned her own tools, from table saws to drills to sanders and screwdrivers and hammers. I have no doubt that if she’d had to, she would have been able to design and build a house for her family. I also have no doubt that if she’d had access to an education, she could have become a fine engineer.

When she and Pedro moved to Texas after they retired, they rented a house that had a linoleum-tile kitchen floor. Fina stripped the linoleum tiles and replaced them with Mexican tiles, by herself. 

AFTER FINA AND Pedro eloped, they moved in with his family into her in-laws’ house, which was way too small to allow for any kind of intimacy. So the young couple would take a blanket to a secluded clearing in the countryside, where they could be alone. One day, as they lay on the blanket after their moments of bliss, Fina heard a rattling noise and quickly sat up to find a menacing snake just a few feet away.

Pedro was afraid of snakes, so it was up to her to deal with it as Pedro retreated to their car.

Pedro was drafted shortly after they got married and she joined him for a while in Oakland, where he was stationed, until he was sent to Germany and she had to take the bus, alone, to Idaho, where Pedro’s family was working in the sugar beet fields.

Fina gave birth to their first child, Margarita, who was followed in quick succession by Elsa, Gina, Peter, Michael and Ileana. Much later came María Luisa. It was a rough time for the growing family, with Pedro switching from job to job often. For a while he was a lechero, delivering dairy products door-to-door from a van. Fina would often join him in his early-morning runs, driving the van while he walked the milk bottles to people’s doorsteps.

Times were tough but Fina was resourceful. One Easter, there was not enough money for Easter baskets for the kids. Fina convinced my siblings and I to get together to make baskets out of old shoeboxes that we covered with crepe paper and filled with fake grass.

Eventually the young family moved to Ohio where Pedro could hold down a year-round job, but even there, there was a lot of hardship, and they moved to California where Fina and Pedro worked in the fields and packing sheds until they both landed steady jobs at the garlic processing plant.

When they retired they moved back Texas and lived in the house where my parents had spent their final years. Fina kept the house in immaculate shape and the yard looked like a Garden of Eden. 

SHE WAS AN excellent cook and could whip up a delicious meal in minutes (while Pedro sat in front of the TV watching old cowboy movies and cooking shows). Last summer, when two of my Texas sisters and I went to California, we stayed with Fina on our last night there. Fina made a batch of chorizo, the best chorizo I’ve ever had, and a stack of flour tortillas. The next morning, we had chorizo for breakfast, and whatever was left, she used it to make tacos for the road trip. We ate the last of Fina’s tacos somewhere in New Mexico.

In Texas, Pedro and Fina would often get in their pickup truck and ride around on the county roads, listening to music from his CD collection. There is not a whole hell of a lot to see on those roads, but they loved it. They called it “country riding.” 

Fina could cuss up a tempest, in both languages, and she rarely cared who heard her. Often her harsh language was aimed at Pedro or her kids or sons-in-law, even her grandkids, but it was rarely in a malicious spirit. 

I’m sure her children would tell you she was often a difficult parent, but their love for her was immense, as demonstrated by how well and lovingly they took care of her in her final years, especially Margie, who lived with her, and Elsa and Gina, who lived nearby.

As with most marriages, Pedro’s and Fina’s relationship was far from perfect, but there was never any doubt that the two remained in love all those years. 

After Pedro died, their children insisted she move back to California, so she moved in with her oldest daughter, reluctantly. But her desire was always to move back to Texas, and she did so briefly until health complications caused her children to once again insist she move back to California. 

She loved to travel and explore. She joined me and other siblings on a camping trip to Big Bend once and loved every minute of it. She visited me in Washington, and she, Margie and Gina would periodically rent a van and drive all over the West and Midwest, stopping to play the slot machines wherever they found casinos. She loved to gamble and she was often a winner.

One of her unfulfilled wishes was to take a driving trip into Canada and all they way to Alaska. She became intrigued by Alaska after watching a TV news show that featured a family that had moved there from Mexico and opened a Mexican restaurant. She wanted to go eat at that restaurant.

Fina smoked cigarettes most of her adult life, but she quit cold turkey when she retired. Whenever she could, though, at the end of the day, she would go outside and sit by herself, smoking a cigarillo or other small cigar.

I’M A SKEPTIC when it comes to an afterlife, but if there is one, my image of Fina in that life is of her, sitting alone and content in her garden – a hoe or a shovel nearby (or a BB gun) – puffing on a cigarillo. 

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Celebrating the Green Stuff

It’s Spinach Festival weekend in Crystal City, my hometown, which boasts two statues of Popeye and still calls itself the Spinach Capital of the World.

Yet, as far as I know, no Spinach is being shipped out of Crystal City. In the good old days, there were two canneries and a number of “plataformas,” packing sheds that shipped fresh spinach to all parts of the country via railroad.

They were owned by prominent farming families. The Wagners. The Carrs. The Byrds. The tallest building for miles and miles around was a concrete vault where blocks of ice, made at the “hielería” next door, were stored for the high season. The ice was crushed and sprayed over the bushel baskets in the railroad cars.

My father worked at several of the plataformas, as did I (for very short periods of time).

My older sisters quit school when they were ternagers and went to work for the Del Monte plant. It was because of them that my family was able to have a decent house, the one I grew up in.

My oldest sister, María Luisa, helped organize he me co-workers into a union and they were all fired. They went to work at the other, smaller, cannery, until Del Monte hired three back.

After they got married and my mother was forced to work, it was at Del Monte that she worked. At first it was the night shift but as she accumulated “señorilla,” she was able to work days.

I think every one of my siblings worked there at one time or another. I did too. Hated it.

A lot of people also worked out in the fields, cutting spinach and packing it into bushel baskets. I never had to do that, thank God.

Spinach is a winter crop (this area is called the Winter Garden of Texas) so the spinach season is in full blast in December and January. Some years, it gets so cold that the ice kills the spinach and deprives a lot of people of work for weeks. The only time we were “on welfare” (which meant accepting government surplus food) was after such hard freezes.

That was during the good old days.

Today there are no plataformas. The railroad that used to take the fresh spinach away stopped running decades ago. And this year the Del Monte plant closed.

Whatever spinach is harvested in the county is shipped out of Uvalde or Carizzo Springs.

Still, the festival must go on. Former residents who now live in Wisconsin, North Dakota and other states, or in other Texas cities, have come back to enjoy the festivities and to see old friends and reminisce about the old days.

A cold front came in last night and a chilly wind is blowing in from the north. That won’t stop this celebration of a a green leafy vegetable that is good for you. Really.

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