Sabor y Salud
Viva La Calabacita!
By Samara Alpern
These days, eating New Mexican cuisine and eating healthfully seem like mutually exclusive endeavors. But many traditional New Mexican foods are, in fact, good for you. Take, for example, calabacitas--blossoming into season right now. These native vegetables have been a mainstay of the New Mexican diet since prehistory and are savory, nutritious and versatile.
“Calabacita” means “little squash” in Spanish. The term generally refers to a variety of summer squashes with thin, edible skins, including zucchini, yellow crookneck, Mexican straight-neck and sunburst squashes.
Native Americans near Oaxaca, Mexico, began to cultivate calabacitas about 10,000 years ago. The early ancestor plants were nothing like the mild, tender summer squashes we know today. The primitive plants were bitter and fibrous. Over the centuries, through selection and domestication, the summer squashes slowly developed into their present form. Before long, the calabacita began to thrive all across the continent.
This proliferation of calabacitas was not just dependent on human cultivation. The plants’ pattern of propagation had to do with their peculiar sex lives, an unusually exacting preference for their pollinating bees. Not just any bee would do.
Before the conquest, the Peponapis bee was the exclusive pollinator of the calabacita plant. Likewise, Peponapis bees are entirely dependent on the nectar of the squashes. Until Europeans began importing bees from their homelands, calabacitas only grew where populations of the Peponapis bee existed.
Calabacitas are also part of what may be a modern legend of Native American history. Calabacitas are fabled as one of the “Three Sisters” of Mesoamerican agriculture. The concept of the “Three Sisters”--a divine dietary triad of squash, beans and corn--has a lot of mythic charm. But the “Three Sisters” concept is debated by historians. Squash, corn and beans are a nutritionally complete combination, but there is little evidence that beans or squash had spiritual significance to the same degree as corn. Plus, our dear chile—which, just like squash, has long been a foundation food--is conspicuously absent from the trio.
Though not necessarily part of a holy trinity, calabacitas are extremely nutritious. Almost every part of the plant is edible, including the root, shoots, blossom, seeds and squash itself. And every part of the plant is bursting with nutrients.
Calabacitas are rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamins A and C, folate, and fiber. A generous intake of potassium and magnesium has been shown to lower blood pressure. Vitamins A and C are both antioxidants, and the consumption of folate during the first weeks of pregnancy is crucial to prevent neural tube birth defects. Eating calabacitas is a great way to increase your fiber intake, which helps prevent cancer and heart disease. A one-cup serving of calabacitas contains only 36 calories.
When New Mexicans refer to calabacitas, they usually mean the prepared dish: a mélange of the squashes, often in combination with cheese and other summer vegetables, like corn, tomatoes and green chile. The dish is classic, and (if you take it easy on the cheese) one of the healthiest New Mexican foods still commonly consumed today.
But there are numerous other preparations from the calabacita plant, including the squash blossom. The flavor of the flower is mild and slightly sweeter than the calabacita vegetable. Squash blossoms may be eaten cooked or raw. The blossoms can be prepared a variety of ways--sliced raw and sprinkled over salads; stuffed and fried like a chile relleno; boiled and mashed, in traditional Native American fashion; lightly sautéed; or steeped in a soup. The blossoms must be harvested early in the morning, just before they are ready to open. Though squash blossoms are hard to find in Albuquerque, they are sometimes available at farmers markets, and are currently in season. Both delicious and beautiful, squash blossoms are worth seeking out.
Calabacita vegetables are easy to find, so it’s easy to be picky about quality. For all varieties, select vegetables that are firm, with thin, shiny, flawless skins. A dent in the surface quickly leads to decay.
Though calabacitas take a variety of different shapes, the flesh is more or less similar, and you may substitute other kinds of squash--zucchini for sunburst squash, for example--in a recipe.
You don’t need to follow a recipe to make calabacitas—they may be eaten raw, or prepared simply and healthfully by steaming, sautéing or baking until tender. However, if you’d like to taste an easy native dish, try one of these recipes.
2 teaspoons oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds summer squash (crookneck, zucchini, sunburst squash, etc.) cut into 1-inch pieces
Kernels from 2 ears of corn, or 2/3 cup frozen kernels
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh sage, minced
6 ounces queso fresco
1) Sauté onions in oil over medium heat, adding garlic when onions become translucent. Once fragrant with garlic (about 30 seconds), add the summer squash. Stir occasionally until squash is almost—but not quite--tender. 2) Add corn kernels. Season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking for a few minutes, until corn is hot and tender. 3) Remove from heat. Add sage. Crumble in queso fresco and combine well. Serve.
Squash Blossoms with Corn
Adapted from Southwestern Indian Recipe Book, Vol. I , Zora Getmasky Hesse (The Filter Press, 1973).
12 squash blossoms
Kernels from 3 ears corn
Kosher salt, to taste
1) Boil squash blossoms until tender in a small amount of water. Drain well, mash and set aside. 2) Barely cover corn kernels in water and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, then add mashed squash blossoms and simmer gently, stirring frequently until mixture is thick. Season with salt and serve hot.
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