There are arguably as many ways to make calabacitas as there are Mexican grandmothers alive today. From Tex-Mex style squash that's inundated with roasted green chilies and peppered with corn kernels to Baja style calabacitas drenched in tomatoes and smothered in cheddar, this traditional way to prepare versatile summer squash will ensure that dinner plates are licked clean.
Calabacitas cannot be prepared without the essential calabazas, or squash. Technically calabaza refers to a pumpkin or pumpkinlike squash, but traditional calabacitas use summer squash types such as zucchini or crookneck. Variations abound, but all versions also contain tomatoes, onion and garlic as a base. Lastly, all calabacita recipes contain cheese. The type, however, is left to personal preference and ranges from traditional Mexican Cotija or queso fresco to cheddar or Jack.
The biggest variations in calabacitas come from a few optional ingredients, namely chilies, corn and crema Mexicana, or sour cream. Some versions that are more Tex-Mex influenced use all three; some use one or two; and Baja style may add corn or nothing at all. Herbs and spices are prominent, but vary depending on the recipe and personal taste. As a general rule, pick one spice -- either cilantro, oregano or cumin -- to be the main complement to the dish.
All recipes agree that chopped onion and garlic should be sauteed until golden brown in some oil. Think 1 onion and 2 garlic cloves per 4 cups of diced squash. Once caramelized, add the tomatoes and simmer until nice and saucy. Tomato ratios vary from 1/2 cup with the above ingredients if green chilies are in the mix, all the way up to 4 cups for a deeper red sauce, depending on how suffused with tomato flavor you want the finished dish to be. The key is creating a nice sauce that will be the base.
Putting It All Together
Once the sauce is ready, add in the diced squash and other optional ingredients such as peppers, corn and chosen herbs. Bring the entire dish to a simmer and cook until the squash is tender, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring to prevent burning as necessary. Stir in crema Mexicana as desired; season with salt and pepper to taste and top with a handful of crumbled or shredded cheese. Allow some time for the cheese to warm through and melt before serving with tortillas to sop up the juices. Buen provecho!
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