In Mérida, the picturesque capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán, Pedro Evia whiled away many a teenage afternoon school in divey local cantinas. Recalls Evia, now the chef-owner of the city’s Ku’uk restaurant: “When I was in high school in the 1980s, Cantina La Negrita was a place you went to deal with your assignments. It was an old man place, and you could find your high school teachers there. You’d go there to negotiate your grades.”
It was also where Evia developed a taste for the botanas, or savory bites, the bar served gratis. “There’s a menu that every Yucatecan cantina must have: ceviche, potatoes with cilantro and onions, beans, sikil p’ak, and calabacitas fritas,” he says. The latter, translated as “fried squash,” is a salsa that’s traditionally made from a green summer squash called calabaza de castilla. Though his menu at Ku’uk includes a zhuzhed-up version, Evia describes the real-deal recipe as “mom” plate. “It comes from my mom, and every mom in Mérida.”
Basically diced squash sauteed with onion, corn, and tomatoes, calabacitas fritas is never heavily spiced—just a sprinkling of Mexican oregano and a bit of black pepper for heat. A few slices of sweet chiles may be added as a garnish, along with a pinch of queso sopero or queso cotija. Serve it like Mérida’s cantinas do, with a bowl of crunchy tortilla chips, or spoon the stuff over grilled fish, chewy sopes, or crunchy tostadas, as we did here. While the classic ingredients are technically warm-weather fare (zucchini is a close approximation for the squash used in Yucatán), you can also swap in sweeter winter varieties like butternut or acorn; just be sure to adjust the cook time accordingly.
Yucatecan Tostadas Calabacitas Fritas Recipe
- ½ cup corn or canola oil
- Six 6-inch corn tortillas
- ½ yellow onion, finely diced (½ cup)
- ⅔ fresh corn kernels (cut from 1 medium cob)
- 2 small zucchinis, finely diced (2 cups)
- 1 large vine-ripe tomato, cored and finely diced (½ cup)
- ¼ tsp. Mexican oregano
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped cilantro
- ¼ cup crumbled queso sopero (or substitute queso cotija)
- Yucatan-style habanero sauce (optional)
- Line a large baking sheet with paper towels and set it aside. To a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil. When the oil is hot (about 350° on a deep-fry thermometer), fry the tortillas in batches of 1 or 2, turning once, until crispy and golden, 2–4 minutes per side. Use tongs or a spider skimmer to transfer the cooked tortillas to the lined baking sheet to drain as you continue frying the rest. Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the oil into a heatproof bowl and cool completely before discarding.
- Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, 2–3 minutes. Add the corn and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until glossy and bright yellow, 2–3 minutes more. Add the squash, tomato, and oregano, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until they are tender and cooked through but not yet breaking down or watery, 2–3 minutes. Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the cilantro.
- To serve, scoop the vegetable mixture over the fried tortillas. Top with crumbled cotija cheese and serve warm with Yucatán-style habanero sauce (if using) on the side.