Alibi V.23 No.43 • Oct 23-29, 2014 

Flash in the Pan

Reconsider the Tomatillo

Embracing a forgotten fruit

Chile verde in the raw
Chile verde in the raw
Ari LeVaux

Pity the tomatillo, one of the most ignored and misunderstood of all produce items. When I see them at the farmers market, languishing in the stalls of growers who would otherwise be on their way home were it not for their tomatillos, I'm reminded of the last kid to get picked for a kickball team. Nobody values tomatillos or knows what to do with them, except to make salsa. And honestly, it's hard to argue that tomatillo salsa is any better than tomato salsa. The true strength of this fruit lies elsewhere, but few seem to know it. My version of Microsoft Word doesn't even acknowledge "tomatillo" as the correct spelling of a word. But if these software developers and farmers market shoppers were to try my chile verde (not to be confused with green chile), they'd be reprogramming their word processors and updating their meal plans, such that proper respect is given to this ancient fruit.

I kept messing with my chile verde recipe until it got to the point of such awesomeness that, when a housemate once knocked a finished batch off the counter before dinner one night, the five-second rule was cast out the window. We scooped it off the floor and into bowls with a spatula, and ate it with the abandon of desperate drug addicts sharing a soiled needle.

I call it "my" chile verde recipe, but it's adapted from bits and pieces I've picked up from various other recipes. Of course, the descendants of Aztecs and Mayans have been combining chile, tomatillos and meat for millennia. I kept messing with my recipe until it got to the point of such awesomeness that, when a housemate once knocked a finished batch off the counter before dinner one night, the five-second rule was cast out the window. We scooped it off the floor and into bowls with a spatula, and ate it with the abandon of desperate drug addicts sharing a soiled needle.

Aztec wordsmiths honored the unusual architecture of the tomatillo with the name miltomatl, which means "round and plump with paper." Almost 2,000 years later, people are still captivated by the fruit's appearance—only to bring some home, discover their strange, tart flavor and say "Hmm." They proceed to search online for tomatillo salsa recipes. If they only knew.

Chile verde is a simple dish, but so rich and complex that one might expect it to be harder to prepare than it is. The ingredients combine into something greater than the sum of their parts in remarkable fashion, such that the finished product can make an average cook look like a genius.

Pork is typically used, but most any meat will do. I like it with deer and recently made a batch with lamb, which resulted in a dish that tasted like something from an Indian restaurant. It seems that chile verde can do no wrong.

The tomatillo's tartness penetrates the meat, tenderizing it and creating new flavor combinations. Meanwhile, the tomatillo becomes transformed into a surprisingly rich and edible version of itself, with a softer, less tart and less strange flavor.

Ari LeVaux

Floor Lickin’ Chile Verde

Ingredients:

1 lb tomatillos
1 lb meat (pork, lamb, venison, beef)
1 lb chile peppers (the more variety, the better. Poblanos, jalapeños, bell peppers, dried red chile, Jimmy Nardello’s, señoritas, conchos de toro, Bulgarian fish peppers ... whatever capsicum you've got, fresh or dried. Diversity of chile is what gives each batch of chile verde its unique fingerprint. I wish I could remember the mix that went into the batch we ate off the floor.)
2 cups chopped cilantro
1 large onion, chopped
1 head garlic
5 bay leaves
Red wine for cooking (I wouldn't cook with a wine I wouldn't drink.)
1 tablespoon cumin powder or crushed cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Instructions:

Cut the meat into 1-inch-or-smaller cubes, and brown it in the pan or under the broiler. Using a tender cut of meat makes the job a bit simpler. After browning, tough cuts of meat should be braised in 3 parts water and 1 part red wine, with 5 or so bay leaves and a sprinkle of salt. Bake at 300 degrees in a covered dish until the meat softens, adding more water and wine as necessary.

With your meat in an oiled pan on medium heat, cook until it begins to sizzle and add the onion and garlic. Savor the aroma as you stir.

Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and cumin. When the onions are translucent, add 1 quart of chicken stock (or jus from your braising) to the pan. Simmer for 30 minutes.

As the meat simmers, the next steps take place in the food processor.

Remove and discard the husks from the tomatillos, slice them in half, and purée along with the cilantro, garlic and chile peppers—trimmed and de-seeded as necessary per your heat tolerance. If you have some green tomatoes that you picked off the vine before the big freeze, you can throw them in as well.

(Note: If you want to chicken out here and just make tomatillo salsa, your work is essentially done. Add some chopped onions and start dipping your chips. But understand that you will be missing out on the culinary experience of a lifetime.)

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 in a bowl like soup.

The prep time in chile verde is reasonably short, but the cook time, ideally, is long. Whether made with a succulent piece of pork or a slow-cooked lamb shank, chile verde is a dish worth waiting for. And if necessary, it's a dish worth eating off a dirty floor.