I made myself a nice big dish of calabacitas for lunch recently. I had bought fresh corn, zucchini, yellow onions, and red bell peppers at a local farmers’ market, and the best green chili on the planet is at my fingertips. Santiago’s, a regional Mexican restaurant unique to Colorado’s Front Range, has a location a block from my house. I can smell the green chili simmering and the tortillas on the griddle when I step out my front door if the wind is blowing the right way.
I thought about sharing the calabacitas with my teenage daughter. Maybe I could give her a taste of the Spanish culture that, through no fault of mine or her own, has become such a small part of her busy American childhood. I toyed with the idea of offering her a bite or two, telling her how my grandma used to make calabacitas in a kettle large enough and deep enough to hold two fat loaves of bread, how the smell of frying onions and garlic had filled her kitchen till my tummy rumbled and my mouth watered, how I was so proud she trusted me with the sharp paring knife in my hands when she had taught me to peel the slippery zucchinis.
But I didn’t share. My kid would have whined about the veggies, and the joy would have been lost on her. So I sat down with a spoon and took a lovely solo trip down memory lane on a medley of corn, squash, and onions.
Calabacitas is a traditional dish in New Mexico. The Pueblo Indians were already growing corn and calabazas–squash or pumpkins–when the Spanish arrived in the New World. The Spanish soon learned to make calabacitas with corn and any squash that happened to be in season. In the summer, they used zucchinis and yellow squashes; and they relied on pumpkins and butternut squash during the long autumn and winter months.
I grew up on calabacitas as a simple medley of corn, yellow squash or zucchini, onions, and garlic, fried in olive oil. No frills, no fuss. But since leaving home, I’ve come across many different variations in how they can be made. I still like my Grandma’s way best. But once I opened up to trying other recipes, I’ve learned there’s some darn good eating out there. Some people add Roma tomatoes or tomato paste to their calabacitas for a different flavor. Some toss in black beans and green chili and top theirs with cheese to turn a side dish into a main meal. Some make theirs into a casserole by baking it in the oven and adding chicken or beef. And then, of course, the slightly sweet pumpkins and winter squash transform the usually savory dish into a rich, buttery delight for the taste buds. Humble calabacitas have been soothing hunger pangs and satisfying hearts for hundreds of years.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
4 cups yellow summer squash or zucchini, sliced thin (or use both together)
2 cups corn (fresh or frozen)
1 red or green bell pepper, diced
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Heat two tablespoons oil in a large skillet and fry the onion lightly about five minutes over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook three minutes longer.
2. Add the squash and cook five to seven more minutes, or till squash is softened.
3. Add the remaining oil with the corn and red or green bell pepper and cook three minutes longer.
4. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to be sure vegetables are completely heated through, and serve.
5. Stir in red or green chili to heat up the flavor a bit, or feel free to try any of the variations mentioned above. Enjoy!
Jo Elizabeth Pinto was among the first blind students to integrate the public schools in the 1970’s. In 1992, she received a degree in Human Services from the University of Northern Colorado. While teaching students how to use adaptive technology, she earned a second degree in 2004 from the Metropolitan State College of Denver in Nonprofit Management. These days, she freelances as an editor and a braille proofreader.
As an author, Pinto entertains her readers while giving them food for thought. In her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she draws on personal experience to illustrate that hope is always an action away.
Pinto lives in Colorado with her husband, her teenage daughter, her brindle black Labrador guide dog Spreckles, and an aging family cat called Sam-I-Am. To find out more about her, including her award-winning novel and her two books of memoirs, available in audio, Kindle, and paperback formats, please visit her author Website at https://www.brightsideauthor.com.