Food for Thought
Tomatillos are good for more than just salsa
By Ari LeVaux
I feel sorry for tomatillos, the way I used to feel for the last kid to get picked for kickball. Tomatillos languish on otherwise empty tables at the end of growers’ markets, often destined for the compost pile because they're nobody’s favorite. It's not their fault. It's just that nobody knows what to do with tomatillos.
Aztec wordsmiths honored tomatillos' unusual architecture with the name miltomatl, which is practically reverse-pig-latin for the word's linguistic descendent. Miltomatl means “round and plump with paper.” Almost 2,000 years later, people are still captivated by the appearance—only to bring one home, discover the strange tartness, and go, Hmm. Other than the occasional batch of salsa, the tomatillo remains an outcast. Microsoft doesn’t even acknowledge the word. But that would all change if more people tried my chile verde.
Tartness penetrates the animal parts, revealing savory and tender secrets you never knew your meat had. Meanwhile, the tomatillo becomes transformed into a surprisingly rich and edible version of itself.
In truth, it’s hardly "my" chile verde. In addition to enjoying tomatillos, Aztecs and Mayans have been eating chile and meat for millennia. I like to think my recipe is descended from some Meso-American delicacy.
Chile verde is a simple dish, but there are few recipes I discuss with such bravado. My greatest batch ever got accidentally knocked off the counter at serving time. The floor it landed on was hardly clean enough to eat off, and unmentionable liberties were taken with the five-second rule. We knew we really shouldn’t, but we knew we had to, so we scooped it off the floor with spatulas and tilted them into bowls. We ate it like fiends desperate enough to share a needle.
Pork is typically used, but most any meat will do. I like it with deer. It can also be made vegetarian by substituting beans, summer squash, potatoes and/or corn for pork.
Carnivores will appreciate how the tomatillo tartness penetrates the animal parts, revealing savory and tender secrets you never knew your meat had. Meanwhile, the tomatillo becomes transformed into a surprisingly rich and edible version of itself.
To serve four people, start by browning a pound of meat, cut into 1-inch-or-smaller cubes. Most people assume meat should be browned in a pan with oil, but I prefer browning below the broiler. There's less splatter, less cleaning and it's easier to develop a satisfyingly golden-brown crisp. Using a tender cut of meat makes the job a bit simpler. But for those extra-tough cuts, or particularly stubborn stew meat, oven-brown the cubes and then cool. Put the cubes in a baking pan and cover them with 3 parts water and 1 part red wine, with 5 or so bay leaves and a sprinkle of salt. Braise this meat at 300 degrees in a baking dish with a good lid until the meat softens, adding more water and wine as necessary.
Add your chunks to an oiled pan on medium heat. When the pan starts sizzling add 1 onion, chopped, and 4 big cloves' worth of chopped garlic. Savor the aroma as you stir.
Season the pan with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper, 2 teaspoons of garlic powder, and 1 teaspoon of cumin powder. When the onions are translucent, add 1 quart of chicken stock to the pan. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Now it's time for the peppers. Any and all varieties should be considered. You need at least 1 pound—the recipe is equal parts peppers, tomatillos and meat—and the more variety, the better. Poblanos, jalapeños, bell peppers, dried red chile, Jimmy Nardellos, senoritas, concho de toros, Bulgarian fish peppers ... whatever capsicum you've got, fresh or dried, chop or crumble it into the mix, removing the seeds and membranes of the hot ones as you see fit, given your audience. Diversity of chile is what gives each batch of verde its unique fingerprint. I only wish I could remember the mix that went into the batch I ate off the floor.
Remove and discard the husks from a pound of tomatillos, slice them in half, and use a blender or food processor to make it smooth but still a little chunky. Blend in 1 cup of cilantro and 2 garlic cloves. Stir this mush into the meat pan and simmer for another hour or two on low heat, seasoning with salt and pepper, stirring frequently, and adding water or stock as necessary. When you're ready to be done cooking, stop adding water and allow the gravy to thicken a bit. Serve with tortillas or rice, or like soup in a bowl with a dollop of sour cream or mayo.
The prep time in chile verde is reasonably short, but the cook time is quite long. Cooking it the day before is ideal, allowing you to work as slowly as you need. When it's done, let it cool before refrigerating, where the chile verde will continue to improve via fridge marination.
Whether made with a succulent piece of pork or a slow-cooked shank, chile verde is a dish worth waiting for. It's a dish worth eating off a dirty floor.
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