Calabacitas is a Mexican side dish made with yellow squash, zucchini, corn, onion, peppers, and cotija cheese. It's light, summery, and can be served with your favorite main course or on its own with tortillas.
Calabacitas is an excellent side dish to add to your summer cooking rotation. It's prepared entirely on the stovetop in a single pan, making it easy to whip up in about 20 minutes.
Popular in the southwest US and Mexico, there are many variations of Calabacitas. While the main focus is on including plenty of fresh veggies, it's otherwise easy to customize. Add tomatoes, use all zucchini or all yellow squash, or omit the dairy to make this recipe vegan.
Serve calabacitas alongside your favorite main course as a side, or on its own as a vegetarian meal with tortillas. If you enjoy calabacitas, you may want to try my recipes for Mexican roasted vegetables or Mexican zucchini skillet next.
What does calabacitas mean?
Calabacitas translates to "zucchini" in English.
Ingredients and substitutions
- Squash - The main ingredient of this recipe. You'll need two small yellow summer squash and two small zucchini. Feel free to use all summer squash or all zucchini if it's what you have on hand.
- Vegetable oil - Any neutral cooking oil works in this recipe, like canola oil, olive oil, or avocado oil.
- Butter - Adds extra flavor to the dish. Can be substituted with more cooking oil if needed, or if you'd like to make the dish vegan friendly.
- Onion and garlic - These ingredients add flavor to your calabacitas. I don't recommend omitting either for best results.
- Poblano pepper - One poblano pepper can be substituted with two small jalapeno peppers or a 4 ounce can of drained green chiles. Half a bell pepper can be used if you prefer a milder flavor.
- Corn - Frozen, fresh, roasted, or canned corn will work in this recipe.
- Seasoning - Salt, oregano, and red pepper flakes enhance the flavor of the dish.
- Heavy cream and cotija cheese - These two ingredients are optional. To make this dish vegan, omit these two ingredients. The heavy cream creates a creamy sauce and cotija cheese is crumbled on top just before serving.
Calabacitas is an easy side dish to customize with your favorite fresh produce. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Use all zucchini or all yellow squash.
- Add more veggies like diced tomatoes, green beans, spinach, and mushrooms.
- Fresh herbs: garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or parsley for a pop of color.
- For less heat: substitute the poblano with a bell pepper.
- For more heat: include the seeds and membranes of your pepper, or use serrano or jalapeno peppers.
- Protein: add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas, black beans, or cooked and shredded chicken towards the end of cooking.
How to prevent soggy squash
Zucchini and summer squash are between 90 and 95 percent water. This means that it's very easy for a squash recipe to become watery or soggy.
The main reason squash gets soggy? Overcooking. How do you prevent overcooking your squash? Keep an eye on your veggies during the cooking process. Here are a few visual and textural cues to look out for:
- Veggies should maintain their bright, vibrant colors. If they begin to dull and turn a murky yellow-olive color, they're likely overcooked.
- Pierce a cube of squash through with a fork. If its still holding its shape, but with little resistance, your squash is done.
- Squash should mostly hold its shape when cooked through and will not be falling apart or mushy.
- Keep in mind that squash cooks more quickly than heartier produce like potatoes and broccoli. Cubes of squash only need 6 to 8 minutes to steam on the stovetop (depending on the size of your cubes).
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 poblano pepper, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 small zucchini, cubed
- 2 small summer squash, cubed
- 1 cup frozen corn
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup heavy cream, optional
- ¼ cup crumbled cotija cheese, optional
- In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add oil and butter. Once melted and hot, add onion and poblano pepper, cooking until onions begin to brown around the edges and soften, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional 30 seconds.
- Add corn, zucchini, squash, salt, oregano, and red pepper flakes, stirring to incorporate. Cover, reduce heat to low, and steam for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until squash is softened to your liking (time depends on the size of your cubes).
- Remove lid and stir in heavy cream. Remove from heat, top with crumbled cotija cheese, and serve warm.
- Frozen corn can be substituted with roasted, canned, or fresh corn.
- Feel free to add your own favorite vegetables, like diced tomato, green beans, and mushrooms.
- Leftovers will keep for 3 to 4 days in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Squash will soften more upon reheating.
- Butter can be substituted with additional oil, and cream and cheese can be omitted to make this recipe vegan.