By Dennis Linden
Literally translated, “calabacitas” is Spanish for “little squash”; however, in New Mexico, it is the name of a quintessential side dish considered a culinary icon of the region. While the traditional ingredient list always includes a summer squash variety, fresh corn and tomatoes, the variations on this dish are virtually endless. Oscar Soto, a member of Melissa’s Retail Replenishment Team, shares his favorite Calabacitas recipe from his own childhood.
“I grew up in a large household and my mom cooked every meal,” Oscar recalled. “My family would always come together each evening for dinner together, all nine of us! My mother had her repertoire of regular dishes and this Calabacitas recipe was one of them. She had learned to prepare this dish from her mother, who had learned it from her mother. In later years, as adults, my father would host a family supper every Sunday afternoon that grew in size to include spouses, grandchildren and, consequently, a multitude of taste preferences that my mom had to consider in her menu plan each week. Still, this Calabacitas dish continued to make the cut as a perennial family favorite. So, for me, this dish always brings back familiar flavors and cherished memories of special times.”
Calabacitas is the very definition of what it means to cook with fresh ingredients. It was first popularized as a seasonal dish, prepared in the late summer or early fall, when that traditional trio of essential veggies were harvested. Oscar’s family recipe keeps it simple by sautéing the squash, tomatoes and corn separately in stages, adding only the flavors of onion, garlic and a few herbs along the way. I used both green zucchini and yellow squash just to add a little more color and another flavor to the dish. Once these ingredients have been simmered together for a short time, the cheese is then folded into the mix and cooked a little longer until melted through. Calabacitas!
Oscar Soto will celebrate his twenty-fifth year with Melissa’s in April! His duties in Replenishment focus exclusively on managing the flow of Melissa’s products to the various distribution centers of one of the company’s larger accounts, a national big-box retailer. Oscar’s daily goal is to be as invisible as a flawless print job of a book; that is to say, perfect print is never noticed unless there is a typo! So to with Oscar’s job that must constantly strive for a smooth flow of supplies to his customer; only interruptions in that flow are noticed!
“In a nutshell, my responsibility is to ensure that our client’s warehouses always have just the right amount of inventory of Melissa’s products on hand. This takes constant monitoring to replace product as needed; never running out while not burdening the client with excess inventory taking up precious storage space,” explained Oscar, adding. “What makes this task challenging are the many variables that can play into the logistics of maintaining a consistent product flow and/or upset it. The job is part statistical analysis, field projections and the weather conditions that upset them; not to mention having to contend with periodic transportation problems as well as fluctuating consumer demand. Always interesting, each day brings a new opportunity to find solutions to those variables as they come.”
Once you have tried this foundational Calabacitas recipe, which is a delicious standalone, this is one of those kinds of recipes that will tempt a serious cook to want to tweak it with other ingredients and flavor accents. As is my habit for this blog, I always make sure that I have enough ingredients for two batches of a recipe just in case my cooking skills generate a need for a second go at it. Oscar’s recipe came out so perfectly delicious the first time that I decided to divide a second, slightly larger, batch in half so I could try out a few of my own tweaks. I turned one portion into a main entrée by simply adding in diced pork; to the rest I blended in some refried beans and strips of fresh green chile pepper for one very tasty taco night! Hope this inspires; enjoy!
2 TBS olive oil, separated
3 Zucchini, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced into half rounds, ½ -inch thick
2 Straight-neck Yellow Squash, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced into half rounds, ½ -inch thick
½ Sweet Onion, diced
1 TBS minced Garlic
5 Roma Tomatoes, chopped
2 cups Fresh corn kernels (if out of season sub 1-15 oz. can)
1 cup Cheese, Monterey Jack or Mozzarella, shredded
1 TBS Fresh Oregano, chopped
Heat 1 TBS oil in a sauté pan, then add in the squash. Sauté on high heat for about five minutes or until pieces begin to brown a bit.
Add the diced onion and minced garlic, sauté an additional 3 minutes. Then stir in the tomatoes, mix thoroughly, cover and simmer on low heat for about 15 minutes.
While the squash mixture is simmering, use the remaining oil to sauté the corn in a separate pan just long enough to give the kernels a slight browning.
After the squash has simmered for 15 minutes, add in the cooked corn, shredded cheese and oregano. Cover and simmer until the cheese has melted into the mixture. Serve hot over rice or as a standalone side dish.