In Your Neighborhood

Maryann, that sweet and fabulous home cook from Finding La Dolce Vita, has pointed out to me that it's hard to find authentic Mexican cheese in the Hudson River Valley, New York, where she lives. She might have a point, though it probably won't be that way for long. If you look closely enough, Mexicans are now found almost everywhere in America—even in Manhattan, where some of my peeps are busy cooking up a little boeuf bourguignon in the kitchens of those fancy French restaurants (you really didn't think that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain does all that cooking by himself, now did you? By his own admission, he's too busy helping himself to barbequed goat in Puebla, Mexico.) And look out my friends who hail from the South East and the Midwest—I am happy to inform you that your cultural and culinary world just got a little more delicious, because these warm, hardworking people are moving to your towns, too! (Don't be alarmed—you'll be just fine.)
So, if you see someone who looks a lot like me walking around your neighborhood, just stop her and say hello. If you don't speak Spanish just repeat this ultra-simple phrase, "DOHN-deh "Eye" KEH'-soh Meh-hee-CAHN-noh?"—"Where do you find Mexican cheese?" (Don't worry about sounding ridiculous. How in the world are you going to learn to speak Spanish otherwise?) Once she realizes that you mean no harm, but are an actual fan of her native cuisine, she will reward you with a friendly smile and will happily point you in the direction of the nearest Mexican cheese. Who knows? You two just might hit off, and the next thing you know, you are invited over for lunch. Woo-hoo!
Once you are inside her aromatic kitchen, she might serve you a rich complex molé, or a carne asada taco in a fresh homemade corn tortilla—or she might serve you this simple little dish of sautéed zucchini with fresh tomatoes and chili peppers—"comida de casa"—comfort food of the highest order that you probably will never see on the menu of a Mexican restuarant. What can be more satisfying and healthful than some warm vegetables, especially on a cold winter's day? Isn't amazing how something that you put together almost as an afterthought can taste so good? You can use just about any vegetable you might have lying around in your refrigerator. Well, perhaps not just any vegetable come to think of it. Turnips or rutabagas would not do at all. I don't have anything against them really, it's just that I don't think they go well with tomatoes and chilies—it's sort of like listening to actor Sean Connery singing a Mexican song in his Scottish burr, if you can only imagine--well, let's not. But zucchinis—or calabacitas—"little squashes", sautéed in a bit of corn oil together with garlic and chopped white onion and bits of your favorite fresh chili pepper, now that's la combinación perfecta. Now throw in some juicy chopped tomatoes, or even your favorite red salsa into the mix, and cooking it until the calabacitas are tender. Then, just before you bring the bowl to the table, put some grated Oaxaca cheese in it. Watch as it melts over the tomato-y little goodness.

My favorite way of eating this simple homey little dish is when I have it the next morning with my fried eggs and pinto beans. Not your typical breakfast, it's true, but if your Mexican friend cooks this up for you, then you're more than just a friend—you're familia.

Calabacitas (Zucchinis) With Chile and Tomato

You can make as much or as little as you want of this comforting dish. Remember, measurements need not be precise, so feel free to improve with this fool-proof recipe. Sliced fresh Poblano chili peppers are traditional, but using any other chili pepper is fine. For this dish I used an Anahiem chili, which is a great introduction for chili boot camp.

What you need:

Any skillet or pot with a well-fitting lid, whether large or small, depending on how much of this recipe you are cooking

Cooking utensils such as chopping knife, cutting board and large spoon


1 or 2 tablespoons corn oil, or more, depending on how much of this recipe you are making

Fresh zucchini—1 or 2 for a small amount, 3 or 4 for a medium amount, 5 or more for a large amount, chopped or sliced any way you like

Chopped white onions—about 1 small onion, or more depending on your taste

1 or 2 cloves minced garlic, or more, if you like

1 or more chili peppers, sliced cross-wise, or cut into long strips. Remove the seeds.

3 or more juicy tomatoes, finely chopped; OR, your favorite red salsa, preferably homemade, but who's looking?

Pinch of oregano to taste
About one heaping tablespoon, or more, chopped fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated Oaxaca cheese (preferred), or Jack or mozzarella cheese

First of all, make sure that you have enough salsa or chopped tomatoes for this recipe. If your tomatoes are not juicy enough, it is perfectly acceptable to add a little tomato sauce. This recipe is meant to be moist, but not watery.

Over medium heat, sauté onion, chopped or sliced chili peppers, and zucchini and in oil until the onion is just golden. Lower heat to medium-low and add minced garlic. Continue sautéing until the onion is a nice golden brown.

Next, add the oregano, cilantro, the diced tomatoes and/or the salsa. Lower heat to low and cover and continue cooking until the tomatoes and/or salsa "melt" and blend with the rest of the ingredients and the zucchini is nice and tender. (Note: If the dish is too watery, cook uncovered for a few minutes until it is as moist or as "dry" as you like.) Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with grated Oaxaca cheese, or mozzarella or Jack.

Variation: Take some corn kernels that are either fresh, or some frozen corn that has been thawed, and add them when you add the zucchini. You can also add a little chopped cabbage, too, if you want.

Tastes oh-so-good the next day.


MichaelG said...

I've long made a variation of this in a skillet with a small zucchini (I like them at about 6 or 8 inches. As they get bigger they seem to get starchy) an ear of corn, two or three jalapenos, red onion (for color) and a single tomato but no cheese. I'll try it with cheese next time. One of the great all time flavor blends is corn and jalapeno. The next time you make corn bread try adding some chopped jalapenos. Your blog makes me smile.

Akannie said...

This sounds GOOD!! I wonder...I tried freezing big chunks of zucchini from my garden last year because I had about 9000 tons of the stuff and can't stand to throw anything away. (And all my friends were hiding and locking their doors when I came by, trying to give it away!!) Anyway--it is great to use in stews and soups but it's a little mushy. Think I could still use it in this recipe?

I wanna try!

Thanks for stopping by my dragonwomanskitchen blog the other day. Did you try the muffins?

I'm telling you though...the banana ones I made stole the show. Everyone wanted them and one guy took several home in his pocket. lol

La Traductora said...

Hi Michael G!
I am definitely going put some jalapeno in my cornbread the next time I make it. How about puting some queso in the cornbread, too? Sounds delish, que no?
Yes, using previously frozen zucchini for this dish is certainly worth a try, though I think that it should be thawed. If the zucchini is a little watery, I wouldn't worry too much about. Simply reduce the moisture by cooking it uncovered for a little while.
Unfortunately, I haven't tried the muffins yet. But I will one of these days!
Thank you for visiting!

Wanda said...

I am so happy I have found your blog, I love Mexican food it is my fave. I will tell you I have tried to make tortillas but they come out looking like Australia, they taste fine it is just the shape. LOL. I was given the recipe by a Mexican friend many years ago. I will be back. TTFN

La Traductora said...

Hi Wanda!
Thanks for visiting! Very soon I'm going to feature a guide to fresh chile peppers to warm up those cold winter nights! Look the photograph of the roses in your blog!

cindylu said...

Going to the farmer's market. I think I'll buy some calabaza so I can make things.

Anonymous said...

That would be my wish! To meet a wonderful Mexican cook and they invite me home for mole! I love it! Wonderful post :)
Maryann xox