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.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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