Whenever I need a break from meat, calabacitas is one of my Mexican dishes of choice. It is fast to put together, hearty and made completely from fresh vegetables, a combination that is hard to beat. This dish uses fresh Roma tomatoes, Mexican grey squash, onions, garlic, and a bit of queso panela. Use as a side to the main dish or as a meal on its own!
What are calabacitas?
Calabacitas (say it like: cal-ah-bah-SEE-taz) essentially translates to “little squash” in English. Calabaza is the Spanish word for squash and the “ita” on the end of the word is a diminutive, referring to how the larger squash used for this dish is cut up into cubes. Hence, the translation of “little squash.”
In Mexico, there is a variety of squash, but the type used for this dish is what in the US is known as Mexican grey squash, Mexican squash, or Mexican grey zucchini. The coloring of this particular squash is not really grey. It is a lighter colored green with small white flecks. This squash is found all year round in central Mexico and this variety comes in 2 shapes.
The first is what is known here in central Mexico as just calabaza or may be referred to as calabaza italiana. It has a thinner, longer shape, sometimes a bit fuller on the bottom, but overall similar to a zucchini. The other type is known as criolla which has the same light green coloring, but the squash is round like a ball. This variety is popular to use for stuffing with cheese or prepared ground meat, like picadillo.
How to make calabacitas a la Mexicana
Calabacitas have several different preparations, but the one that I am sharing here is known as “a la Mexicana.” When a dish is prepared “a la Mexicana” the preparation includes tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, the white, green, and red colors of the ingredients representing the Mexican flag. In this dish, I don’t include any green peppers since the calabacitas provide a green color.
Fry the onions and garlic
I start this dish by adding a bit of oil to a non-stick skillet and heating it over medium heat. I add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until they just being to turn golden. You don’t want to let them go too long because they will continue cooking with the other ingredients.
Add the tomatoes and squash
Next, add the tomatoes. I like to cook these down a bit so that they soften and the flavors develop and sweeten. I also like to cook off a bit of the liquid to keep the dish from being too soggy. After the tomatoes have been cooking for 7-9 minutes, I add in the squash and salt, reduce the heat, and cover. This lets the squash steam in any juices leftover from the other vegetables. Usually, the squash takes about 8-10 minutes to become fork tender.
Add in the cheese
Lastly, I turn off the burner, stir in the cheese, and cover to allow the cheese to soften and partially melt. Of course, the cheese is completely optional. If you are lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet, just omit the cheese entirely. I like to do a final check for salt and adjust as necessary.
These calabacitas are so easy and make a wonderful vegetarian side dish. Or, they can be a complete meal as well! I sometimes heat the leftovers up for breakfast and top with a fried egg or mix in with scrambled eggs. I hope you enjoy these calabacitas as much as I do!
Looking for another vegetarian dish? Try my Mexican amaranth fritters!
Calabacitas a la Mexicana with Cheese
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil I use safflower
- 1/2 medium diced white onion about 3/4 cup
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 5 medium roma tomatoes, seeded and diced about 3 cups
- 3 medium Mexican grey squash, cubed about 4 cups, see notes
- salt to taste
- 4.5 ounces panela cheese, cubed about 125g, see notes
- Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat until oil is hot and shimmering (2-3 minutes)
- Add onions and garlic, stirring frequently and cooking until fragrant and beginning to brown, about 2-3 minutes
- Add tomatoes, stirring occasionally and cooking until soft and liquid is reduced, about 7-9 minutes
- Add the squash, and salt stir to combine, reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until squash is tender, about 8-10 minutes
- Turn off burner, add diced cheese and cover pan for 2-3 minutes or until cheese is partially melted
- If you are unable to find Mexican grey squash, you can substitute zucchini
- Omit the cheese to make vegan