Achiote-Rubbed Butternut Squash Tacos – Recipe

Grilled butternut squash taco filling
Grilled butternut squash taco filling

Last week was Sarina’s birthday, and she requested a Mexican feast for her celebration. These tacos, filled with achiote-rubbed butternut squash were the highlight. I grilled both the squash and some poblanos, then tossed them with crema and cilantro and served them on soft corn tortillas with red onions, queso panela, and Tapatio hot sauce. I think this is one of the tastiest vegetarian tacos I’ve ever had (if I do say so myself).

If you haven’t used achiote before, it is worth checking out. The mildly sour flavor balanced beautifully with the sweetness of the butternut squash. The red color comes from annatto seed, the same plant used to color cheddar cheese. It is typically sold in a small brick, mixed with spices, vinegar and, sadly, red food dye. This mixture is used frequently in the cuisine of the Yucatan penninsula.

The brand of achiote I used was Del Mayab “La Perla”. If anyone has an opinion on even better ones, or more natural options, I’d love to know about them. Anyone worked with plain annatto and made the rest of the mix themselves? I would probably have gone that route but didn’t find annatto in my very limited search. I found the Del Mayab at a nice Mexican grocery in Bothell, WA.

Among the guests for Sarina’s dinner was Geoff Bugbee, who is one of my brother’s best friends. He also happens to be a fantastic photojournalist, specializing in humanitarian work. He took the upper picture in today’s post for me, with his sweet little Canon G9. A little more prosaic than his normal subjects, but I really appreciated it!

Achiote-Rubbed Butternut Squash Tacos
Serves 8 as part of a feast
Vegetarian and gluten-free; could be vegan if you omit the cheese and crema

For the filling:

  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled seeded, and cut into 1/2″ thick slabs
  • 2 oz. achiote paste (see above)
  • 3 poblano peppers
  • cilantro
  • mexican crema or sour cream
  • salt

To serve:

  • 32 soft corn tortillas
  • 1/2 red onion, medium slices
  • 2 limes cut into wedges
  • 1/2 pound panella cheese or other soft, mild, white cheese
  • more cilantro
  • more crema
  • Tapatio or other hot sauce
  • optional: guacamole, more poblanos
  1. Mix the achiote paste with a small amount of hot water. Working in the sink, use your hands to break it up until thoroughly dissolved. Rub it on all sides of the butternut squash slabs and set aside. Wash your hands, this stuff stains!
  2. Prepare a grill for direct high heat. Place the poblano peppers on the grill and char them, rotating occasionally until they are mostly black on all sides. Remove from the grill and put them in a covered bowl for 10 minutes (the steam makes it easy to remove the skins).
  3. Reduce the heat of the grill (by adjusting the gas or allowing the charcoal to burn down and using the side areas), then put on the squash. I didn’t use any oil and had only slight sticking, but you might want to use a little. Cook until thoroughly tender, flipping halfway through.
  4. Remove the squash from the grill and allow to cool a bit, then cut into cubes. If you had to remove it early because it was overcooking on the outside and isn’t quite tender, you can use a microwave to finish it.
  5. Peel and seed the poblanos, then cut into small dice.
  6. Toss the squash and poblanos along with a 1.5 teaspoons of salt. Taste and adjust. Place in a bowl and top with a squirt of crema and some cilantro.
  7. Wrap the tortillas in a moistened towl and microwave for 90 seconds.
  8. Bring everything to the table and let everyone roll tacos to their own taste. Use two overlapped tortillas per taco to make a structurally sound dining device.

The butternut squash tacos with queso panella, onions, cilantro and hot sauce
The butternut squash tacos with queso panella, onions, cilantro and hot sauce

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 in Gluten-Free or modifiable, Main Courses, Recipes, Vegan or Modifiable.

14 Responses to “Achiote-Rubbed Butternut Squash Tacos – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    September 24, 2008 at 7:43 am #

    I’ve used whole annato seeds by infusing them in oil over low heat … works pretty well. I’ve tried to then pulverize them in a mortar and pestle and gotten it reasonably smooth– the seeds are very hard and don’t really become smooth, though the color and flavor infuse into the oil. There’s probably some way to do it, you might see if Diana Kennedy talks about it.

  2. Reply
    Julie Purcell
    September 24, 2008 at 8:50 am #

    YUM!!!! I really missed a good meal with some great people!! Happy birthday Sarina, and congratulations to you and Michael 🙂
    Hope to see all of you soon. Thanks for taking such good care of Geoff, he loved being with you.

  3. Reply
    September 24, 2008 at 8:43 pm #

    Wow does that look yummy! I have worked with Achiote paste before and my all time fav is Del Mayab. I have used it with many meals, one of favorites is marinating tempeh in it and stir frying it up with some sweet peppers and onions and serving as fajitas. Haven’t done that in a long time. Might have to give it a try again!
    Dana Zia
    link to

  4. Reply
    September 26, 2008 at 1:15 pm #

    Hi, Michael. I found you through Cookthink and can’t wait to try this recipe over the weekend – it sounds delicious. I used achiote paste for the first time recently and wasn’t happy with the additional seasonings, so I was thinking of making my own in a spice grinder next time. If the seeds don’t simply break the grinder, I’ll let you know if it was successful.

  5. Reply
    October 2, 2008 at 3:50 pm #

    yea! this looks AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOVE it –

  6. Reply
    October 2, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    Wow. I’m not a vegetarian and I would never have thought about a butternut squash taco. When I read through this recipe, though, my brain tells me, “John, this will be delicious.” The little Pavlovian dog in me starts to salivate, too. I am definitely trying this out this weekend.

  7. Reply
    April 17, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    This looks interesting, but unfortunately it is not possible to buy butternut squash in my country (I am from northern Europe).

  8. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    April 17, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    That’s too bad. You could try a different winter squash, like acorn if that
    is available. Or sweet potatoes / yams would be good too.

  9. Reply
    July 2, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    I made it – absolutely delicious. the squash was even better when i ate it again two days later. I tried it with a nice light fresh goat cheese instead of panela and it was extraordinary.
    Also, found an achiote paste without food colouring: El Yucateco.

  10. Reply
    November 11, 2010 at 9:52 am #


    I own fremont coffee and I came about your site when I googled butternut squash tacos
    saw your picture and remembered you are or used to be a customer
    I love your recipes I stay at home now with my new baby
    and I love how your recipes have so many vegetables in them
    I am trying to cook with more veggies

  11. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    November 11, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    Hi Anya – yep! That's me… I remember you of course. I don't make it down to your end of Fremont very often anymore, but I love Fremont Coffee. Congrats on the new baby. Thanks for dropping a note!

  12. Reply
    February 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm #


    I love this recipe. I made my own achiote.

    World Spice in the Pike Place Market sells annatto seeds. link to

  13. Reply
    November 3, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    Yum! I found a nice recipe for achiote paste here link to I’m going to try it when I make your recipe. I love anything with butternut squash!

  14. Reply
    October 19, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    I assume you go to World Spice Merchants with some regularity? They have annatto.

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