Calabacitas

by Sarah West

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For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)

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