Looking for a healthy side dish for taco night? Well, look no further! This zesty Mexican-inspired vegetarian side dish is one of my favorite ways to spice up veggies and pairs perfectly with tacos.
You Are Going to Love Calabacitas!
I had Calabacitas for the first time in Mexico and was immediately hooked! I am always in search of vegetable dishes from around the world, this should come as a surprise to exactly no one. This dish is simple, and satisfying and will quickly become your new taco side bestie.
Calabacitas, the Spanish word for, “little squash”, is a Mexican squash dish made with zucchini, squash, corn, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Variations include the addition of green chiles (jalapeño peppers), and cheese (cheese is optional and often called Calabacitas Con Queso). This traditional Mexican vegetable dish is served as a side but it can also be a very satisfying main dish, especially with the addition of melted cheese and warm corn tortillas.
Let's Get Cooking!
Ingredients You Will Need and Helpful Substitutions
The traditional main ingredients are zucchini, onion, corn, tomatoes, and peppers. You can add and subtract as needed, my version of this recipe stays pretty close to the authentic/original version.
- Zucchini and yellow squash – The name of this dish implies it is a Mexican zucchini dish, I like to add yellow squash.
- Onion – Yellow onion but white onion works well too.
- Bell pepper – A variety of yellow, red, and green bell peppers give this dish lots of interesting color, plus, each pepper has a different level of sweetness; red being the sweetest, and green having a younger pleasantly bitter undertone.
- Yellow Corn – Fresh corn kernels if in season or good quality frozen
- Fresh Tomato – Use what you have. cherry or Roma tomatoes work great. Chop Roma tomatoes into a medium dice or halve cherry tomatoes.
- Fresh Jalapeño Pepper – Use as much or as little as your spice preference dictates.
- Fresh garlic – Don't cut this too small. You don't want your garlic to burn otherwise it will create an acrid flavor in the entire dish. (Can be omitted if you don't like garlic)
- Avocado oil – You can also use olive oil or even butter would work.
- Queso fresco – This ‘fresh' crumbly cheese is crumbly, slightly tangy, and not too salty. Its mild flavor allows the veggies to stand out. There are many types of cheese that work in this dish, grated mozzarella, Monterey jack, or even cheddar will work, but I love the squeaky fresh queso fresco best.
- Salt and Black Pepper – Season to preference. This dish benefits from salt. Salt will make the veggies taste like their best version.
- Fresh Cilantro or green onion – for garnish
Detailed measurements and ingredients can be found within the recipe card at the end of this post
How to Make Calabacitas
Exact recipe instructions can be found in the recipe card, below you will find helpful hints to make the BEST Calabacitas!
Step One: Prepare Vegetables
Dice all fresh vegetables evenly, keeping the onion, garlic, and green chilies ( jalapeño) separated. If using fresh ears of corn, remove corn from the cob. This is the most labor-intensive bit of the recipe, but oh so worth it. This recipe is best when veggies are diced finely.
Step Two: Saute
Saute zucchini, onion, garlic, and bell peppers in a large skillet until softened, about 5 minutes. Add jalapenos and corn at the end of cooking so they retain a bit of crunch and intensity of flavor. Add tomato and season well with salt and pepper.
Step Three: Cheese!
Crumble in queso fresco, and mix into the veggies. Remove from heat and cover so the cheese melts. Garnish with fresh cilantro and scallions.
- Cut all your veggies the same size. This allows them to cook evenly.
- Be careful not to burn the garlic. Make sure the pan is not too hot when you add the garlic. Your onions should be translucent and soft when the garlic is added. If they are scorching and turning brown and black at the ends, your pan is too hot. Allow it to cool before adding the garlic.
- Stir the mixture through each phase. This helps the dish cook evenly and allows flavor to be distributed.
- If you prefer a more ‘melty' cheese, opt for a grated cheddar or Monterey Jack.
- If fresh corn is out of season, use frozen corn. Be aware that if you add the corn in a frozen state it will cool the skillet and slow down the cooking time.
- Canned green chiles can be substituted for fresh jalapeño. Taste them first to determine their spice level.
How to Serve Calabacitas
- Serve as a healthy side dish with tacos (chorizo tacos, scallop tacos, steak tacos!) or enchiladas
- Serve with warm tortillas and a big green salad for a complete vegetarian meal, I recommend a big dollop of zesty avocado crema on top!
Here are some creative ways to use leftovers, or what I like to call “Reinvention Recipes!”
- Mix with quinoa and top with avocado
- Make Calabacita quesadillas! Add a spoonful to a tortilla topped with melty cheese, add another tortilla on top, and pan fry until crispy and delicious, serve with zesty salsa.
Storage, Reheating, and Freezing Tips
- STORAGE – Refrigerate leftover Calabacitas in an airtight container for up to 5 days
- REHEATING – Warm in a skillet or frypan, (if cheese is already incorporated, a non-stick pan is a good option to keep it from sticking). Microwave for 1-3 minutes, stirring halfway through for best result.
- FREEZING – Not recommended
Yes, it absolutely is vegetarian and can easily be enjoyed as a main dish, served with warm tortillas.
This can be made vegan by leaving out the cheese or substituting it with vegan cheese.
Yes. customize the spice level to your preference.
Yes, you can omit the garlic from this recipe.
Yes, If you can't find jalepeño, you can use serrano, poblano, or canned chilies.
Yes, cotija cheese is similar to queso fresco but with a slightly saltier flavor. Ricotta salata is an Italian version of queso fresco that works just as well. You can also opt for a ‘melty and rich' cheese such as cheddar or jack.
Good question. Yes! This mixture is delicious rolled into a tortilla and topped with your favorite condiment like guacamole, or avocado crema.
Calabacitas Recipe Dietary Modifications
This recipe is gluten-free, vegetarian, and easily modified in the following ways:
- Vegan – Omit the cheese
- Low Fodmap – Use the dark green bit of scallions rather than onion and omit the garlic
- Whole 30 – Omit the cheese and corn
- Paleo – Omit the cheese and corn
- Keto – This is keto friendly depending on how tolerant you are to corn
Looking for More Delicious Vegetable Side Dish Recipes? Try These!
Air Fryer Garlic Butter Green Beans
I can’t wait for you to try this! When you make it, snap a photo and tag me on Instagram @abrapappa or use the hashtag #abraskitchen so I can feature your photo!
If you’ve tried this recipe, don’t forget to rate it and leave a comment below. I love to hear from people who’ve made my recipes!
Easy Cheesy Calabacitas
- 1 Heavy-bottomed skillet (A Dutch oven works better for larger batches)
- 1 Knife
- 1 Wooden Spoon for stiirring
- 1 cup zucchini finely dicd
- 1 cup yellow squash finely diced
- 1 cup yellow corn (kernels off the cob)
- 1 cup yellow onion finely diced
- 1/2 cup green bell pepper finely diced
- 1/2 cup yellow bell pepper finely diced
- 1/2 cup red bell pepper finely diced
- 1 cup fresh tomato chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh jalepeño finely diced
- 3 cloves fresh garlic minced
- 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp fresh black pepper
- 1 cup queso fresco
- Dice all vegetables evenly, keeping the onion, garlic, and jalapeños separated.
- If using fresh – remove corn from the cob.
- Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive or avocado oil over medium heat.
- Add the onion to the skillet and sauté until softened, approximately 5 minutes. Once the onion is soft and translucent, add garlic and cook for another 30 seconds.
- Add bell peppers, zucchini, and squash and sauté until softened approximately 5 minutes.
- Add jalapeños and corn to the mixture and sauté for an additional 5 minutes, until corn is fully warmed through.
- Add tomatoes, salt, and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes, mixing the veggies to fully blend and season.
- Crumble in queso fresco, and stir to incorporate into the vegetable mixture.
- Remove from heat and cover to allow the cheese to soften.
- Garnish with fresh cilantro and/ or green onion.