Calabacitas is a traditional native squash dish that has been prepared throughout Central America and the American Southwest since ancient times. Today there are many regional variations, but the essential native ingredients that date back to pre-Columbian times include calabaza (pumpkin or squash), elote (corn), and chilies. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1400’s cows, sheep, and goats were imported from the old world and calabacitas evolved with the introduction of dairy by-products, including cream (crema) and cheeses.
Interestingly, Mennonite farmers who settled in Chihuahua in the late 1800’s, began producing semi soft cows milk cheeses known as queso Mennonita, which is officially recognized as an authentic Mexican cheese, and often tops calabacitas beautifully to this day.
The recipe that follows reflects various New Mexican and Mexican calabacitas I have encountered while living in Santa Fe and on frequent forays into Mexico over the years. As Mexican cheeses are not generally available outside of Mexico, alternative cheeses include a mild hard or soft goat cheese or fresh or soft mozzarella.
Calabacitas is a beautiful dish to consider for a truly traditional American holiday meal. Or, do as they do in Mexico, a calabacitas con pavo and transform your leftover turkey into a comida a la Mexicana.
Calabacitas: serves 4
- 3 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
- 3 teaspoons butter
- 1 bunch fresh sage leaves, leaves only
- 3 medium size zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 ears fresh sweet corn, kernels cut off the cob, cob scraped to extract the milk
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 3-4 flame roasted jalapeno chilies, skin and seeds removed, cut into thin rajas (strips)
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano leaves
- ¼ cup stock as needed
- 3 ½ oz sour cream
- pinch of cinnamon
- flaked sea salt to taste
- 1/2 cup fresh Mexican cheese (or optional cheeses mentioned above)
- poached chicken or leftover turkey (optional)
Ideally I like to use a cast iron iron skillet for even browning of the vegetables, but a large heavy bottomed frying pan should work equally well.
Place the skillet on the stove top over medium flame. When the pan is hot add a tablespoon of oil and a teaspoon of butter. When melted add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, 30 to 45 seconds should do it. Transfer the fried leaves to a plate and set aside to use later.
Promptly add cubed zucchini to the pan with out crowding. You may have to brown the zucchini in several batches. Turn the zucchini to be sure it browns on all sides, about 5 or 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate to use later. Continue, browning the remaining zucchini and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil and teaspoon butter to the pan and, when hot, add the whole corn kernels. Brown the corn on all sides, again about 5 or 6 minutes. Then transfer to another plate and set aside to use later
Once again, add 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon butter to the pan. When melted add the onions and saute until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onions just begin to color, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile place the milk in a small sauce pan and add the scrapped corn with its milk. Place the pan over low heat and warm to nearly simmering. Stir in the pinch of cinnamon and turn off the heat.
When the onions are nicely colored add the browned zucchini, browned corn, and the roasted jalapeno strips to the skillet. Add the marjoram or oregano, and half of the sage leaves, crumbled over the other ingredients. Stir all the ingredients together and add just enough stock to moisten the calabacitas, about ¼ cup at the most should do it. Heat to a mere simmer, taste, and add sea salt to your liking. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 F/170 c (if using)
Meanwhile stir the sour cream into the warm milk mixture with corn scrapings until well combined,
At this point you can place the skillet of calabacitas over very low heat on the stove top. Stir in the sour cream milk mixture, top with grated cheese if using, cover lightly with foil and warm for several minutes. Then turn off the heat and set aside.
Alternately you can transfer the calabacitas to baking dish, scatter grated cheeses over the surface if using, and place in the preheated oven to warm for about 15 minutes.
You can serve the calabacitas on the stove top in the skillet, or transfer to a serving bowl, top with the remaining fried sage leaves and serve.
Or, serve the calabacitas directly out of the oven garnished with the fried sage leaves.