Calabaza is a generic name in Spanish for hard squashes (Cucurbita spp.). The majority of these hard squashes are Cucurbita moschata, the same genus and species as butternut squash and many other hard squashes grown in New England. For this reason, production practices and pest management for calabaza types are very similar to growing butternut squash and other hard squashes in New England.
Calabaza is the most common name used in Puerto Rico; other names in Latin America are auyama (Dominican Republic and Venezuela), ayote (parts of Central America), zapallo (parts of South America) and West Indian pumpkin in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean. In Brazil, the word in Portuguese for hard squash is abóbora, which is also now sometimes used as a susbsitute for calabaza in New England. We’re using the word calabaza in this article to refer all types of hard squashes used in Latino markets.
Tropical lines of calabaza can vine extensively, up to 50 feet long, and also produce very large fruit in excess of 50 pounds. These tropical lines are not well suited for production in the Northeastern US due to the vining nature, requiring abundant space, and the fact that the fruit may not mature before frost. Many growers in Latin America save seed from harvest of these open-pollinated lines for the next planting, which leads to tremendous variation in plant growth and fruit size, shape and skin color (Figure 1). One reason for this tremendous diversity is that hard squashes are monecious (plants that have both male and female flowers on the same plant). This is unlike peppers and tomatoes, for example, in which each flower has both the male and female sexual organs, called perfect flowers, and thus self-fertilization in the same flower is common. This means there is less variation in the next generation when saving seed in peppers and tomatoes compared to crops in the cucurbit family such as calabaza.
Open-pollinated types of calabaza, with tremendous variation in size, skin color and shape, used to be more commonly found in Latino markets in the Northeastern United states. Over time these types are being replaced by more uniform squashes, and smaller types so that they can be packed more easily with less damage (see marketing). These other types of hard squash that have become common in Latino markets include kabocha and abóbora, and even butternut squash (Figure 2). One key trait that consumers want is deep orange flesh and kabocha, abóbora types butternut squash and many other hard squashes have deep orange flesh the market desires (Figure 3). In addition, many Latinos use small amounts of calabaza at a time. Calabaza is not traditionally used as a side dish in Latino cuisines, as is the case in many traditional, non-Latino households in the United States. Instead, as stated above, calabaza is added to dishes in small amounts at a time whihc encourages markets to sell smaller sizes of calabaza. For this reason, when markets buy large types of calaabaza they traditionally cut them into smaller pieces and wrap them in cellophane (Figure 3). One issue with this practice is that the calabaza pieces will begin to degrade more rapidly after being cut compared to hard squashes that are sold whole. This means that markets can lose a higher percentage of their squash when they cut them compared to when they keep them whole.
Calabaza is added to rice and beans, added to sauces as a thickener and an ingredient in stews and soups. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic calabaza is a common ingredient in sanchco, a type of hearty stew, along with other viandas (Figure 4). (Viandas are tropical root crops along with hard squash and plantains.). There is a very similar dish in Cuba called ajiaco.
In traditional cuisines of New England, hard squashes are traditionally consumed during the fall and winter since we harvest them in the fall and they can remain viable through the early winter. Calabaza is used year-round in Latin American countries, most-likely since it can be grown and harvested year-round. For this reason Latino markets in the Northeastern are looking for hard squashes/calabaza year-round.
Grow calabaza using the same production practices for winter squash or pumpkin. Due to its relatively long days-to-harvest, it is recommended to use transplants in New England.
Post-Harvest and Packing
Calabaza should be stored under the same conditions as other hard squashes: 55°- 60° F and 50–75% Relative humidity. Table 16: Handling Produce for Higher Quality and Longer Market Life, New England Vegetable Management Guide
Traditionally, Calabaza was packed in 50 pound meshed bags (Figure 5); however, as mentioned above, it is more common to see smaller hard squashes that are packed in bushel 1/9 waxed boxes (Figure 6).
UMass Extension and commercial growers in Massachusetts trialed two hybrid varieties of calabaza developed by a breeding program based at the University of Florida in the late 1990’s, “La Estrella” and “El Dorado”. These varieties grow much better in our climate than the tropical OP lines and are very uniform (Figure 7). Trials in Connecticut for two of these varieties yielded 26 tons/acre of "La Estrella and 35 tons/acre of "El Dorado".
Calabaza is a good source of beta carotine, riboflavin and thiamine. We worked with the Hector Reyes House in Worcester Mass. and nutrition educators with the UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program to produce a culturally-appropriate and nutritionally-balanced sancocho recipe, called the Hector Reyes House Vegetarian Sancocho. It is a vegetarian recipe, which is extremely uncommon in traditional Latino cuisines, however this was a request made by the Hector Reyes House. Small amounts of meat can easily be added to this recipe.