This month’s featured recipe by a staff member is both a traditional Mexican dish dating back to the 16th Century as well as a bit of culinary trickery used by Dani Hernandez’s parents in order to get her to eat her vegetables as a child—and it stuck!
“As a child, I had a hard time eating my vegetables,” Dani recalled. “After many a dinner refusing to eat whatever veggie side dish I was being served, my parents tried this very traditional version of Calabacitas, which is basically veggies smothered in cheese. Who doesn’t like cheese? I am sure that I never noticed the veggies that first tasting, but it taught me that vegetables can be tasty and the dish remains a favorite. In fact, I recently used the same approach on two very young nephews and a young niece who were all having similar trouble developing a good relationship with vegetables. It also helped their attitudes about vegetables by including them in some of the basic tasks of the prep in this recipe, which always provides incentive to want to taste the finished goods—not to mention that moderate amount of cheese topping!”
Attention novice cooks—this one is for you! This a very simple recipe using a small collection of common fresh ingredients, lightly sautéed in butter and topped with cheese. Dani’s dish successfully relies solely on the unique taste of each fresh ingredient: zucchini, corn, tomato, onion and garlic provide enough combined flavor without the need for an auxiliary sauce of any kind beyond the natural juices of the components and a bit of cheese to tie each bite together. So even a beginner can look good in the kitchen with this very easy, very colorful and very authentic dish of Mexico.
Calabacitas is the Spanish word for little squash. So, squash, usually yellow squash or zucchini, has been the required component of this dish for centuries. However, within that single rule hundreds of versions of this dish can be found throughout Mexico. Dani sticks to the basics that definitely harkens back to this dish’s earliest history, probably in the primitive kitchens near Oaxaca, Mexico as there is evidence of squash varieties being cultivated in abundance as long as 10,000 years ago! Still, those conquering Spaniards were the first to give the dish its name and also spread the popularity of the Calabacitas recipe through their travels and trade routes.
Dani Hernandez is a great example of both the opportunities that are possible in the produce industry as well as that old adage about there being no shortcuts to success that do not include a strong work ethic and attention to the details. Starting where she belonged as fresh produce rookie, Dani worked on the evening shift at our warehouse team in Shipping and Receiving doing paperwork as well as helping take physical inventories of all our products. Counting packages and boxes sounds like such a simple thing, but in this business of handling hundreds of fresh items from around the world, it is a speed course in Fresh Produce 101. Dani says the experience never got tedious and taught her about fresh produce that she never knew existed. (Sidebar: Starting at the age of nine on many Saturdays this writer was handed a clipboard by his own produce professional father, who pointed to his warehouse and told me to “count everything.” It was a wonderful education that turned into a career). Next Dani transitioned from the last shift of the day to the first shift of the early morning.
“I then moved to first shift of the day at 2:00 a.m. in the same department. My role was making sure that all the orders were printed and assigned accordingly before the set-up team arrived each morning. What I really enjoyed was being the first individual to arrive in the office. I was curious about this whole business, so it gave me some quiet time to explore and learn a little bit about how the company works from department to department. I feel like this helped me make the transition to the Sales department so much smoother. What I liked about sales was the relationships that I was able to build with my customers. Though I’m no longer in the Sales Department I still receive calls from those customers just to say hello. This really is a business of relationships.”
Dani now manages the company’s “direct orders” from the east coast and Midwest. Direct Orders are those shipped or picked up from inventories of product stored at convenient “hub” warehouses closer to our customers located in the Midwest as well as the Eastern Seaboard. Dani also manages the inventories of the company’s pre-ripened Sapurana Mango program as well as our Dutch Potato Trays program.
Outside of the office, Dani enjoys exploring new cities—in other states! In fact, she is on a mission to eventually visit cities in all fifty states. She’s only seen seven so far but she says she will get there even if it takes years. What a great goal! Closer to home and a little easier to accomplish, Dani loves to “sit in a corner with a paintbrush in my hand and a canvas in front of me just painting away, getting lost in whatever landscape I am working on.” She claims that she isn’t a very good artist and that she just took it up again to relax. No doubt, she is selling herself a little short, especially considering her answer to the dream dinner guest she wants to invite over…
If I could invite any famous person to enjoy a meal at my own table, it would be the French painter, Claude Monet. His amazing water lily paintings, a series of 250 that he painted for the last 30 years of his life in spite of having cataracts, inspired me to try to recreate his art! It would be a great experience to have a long conversation in order to better understand his thought process. And, who knows, even a Frenchman might enjoy a big bowl of Calabacitas!
4 large zucchinis, cut into bite-size pieces
2 fresh corns on the cob, remove kernels from the cobs
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 small white onion, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup of Monterrey Jack cheese, grated
1 clove of garlic (finely chopped)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepare all the vegetables.
Melt the butter on medium heat, then add the corn kernels and sauté 7 to 10 minutes, stirring often until kernels just begin to turn a little brown. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Sauté the onion and garlic in oil until aromatic (about a minute), then add in the tomatoes and zucchini. Add in a small amount of water, cover and cook until firm-soft (about 5 to 7 minutes) stir occasionally to avoid burning.
Now mix in the cooked corn until thoroughly combined, Spread the cheese over the top, cover until let the cheese melts, then serve immediately as a side dish with a favorite protein.