Tomatillos first appeared on my radar when I was 14, and my parents took us out west for the first time. We flew to New Mexico and drove through Colorado, passing through the great sand dunes and, finally, winding up through the Rockies. The night before our departure my poor mother had tumbled down the stairs while wrangling the cat, and she was sporting colors as varied and shocking as the ones in the bowl above–a bit too conspicuous for my comfort level, as everyone we passed seemed to eye my Dad suspiciously. But what had started as an ominous trip turned glorious, and my suburban Tostitos world was forever rocked.
My parents ordered Huevos Rancheros every morning for breakfast, much to my horror–beans and chile sauce over eggs? Seems like a pretty terrific idea now. The trip was my initiation into the world of southwestern cooking, with its deft uses of peppers, its sopapillas and enchiladas and beans–a young vegetarian's wonderland. The flavors on everything were new and brilliant, as was the otherworldly light of Santa Fe and the alien terrain of sand and sagebrush, embracing us from all sides during our long hours in the car. I developed a mania for beaded jewelry and all things Native American, and I believe this was the budding of my hippie wannabe phase and my fixation on Jim Morrison and other cliché teenage things. The experience is preserved in glossy prints of my sister and me, awkwardly posed on adobe walls against desert sunsets, our tight-rolled jeans now accessorized with concho belts and giant turquoise bracelets.
Although it would be years before I held a tomatillo in my hand, much less cooked with one, I saw them heaped in markets, and their tang seemed to shine out from whatever plate they graced. Back east, I was deflated to discover that dinner at Chili's was but a flat, gummy facsimile of the marvels I had tasted out west. A bite of fresh tomatillo, even now, brings back a glimmer of the newness I had tasted that summer.
Back to the question of what to do with tomatillos. First, you'll want to get rid of the husks and rinse them, since they're invariably coated with a weird, resinous stickiness. You don't need to cook them–for all their firmness, they're surprisingly yielding once you begin chopping or pureeing them, and although tart, they are not puckeringly so–there's also a hint of sweetness and a faint hum of that umami thing tomatoes have going on. They also taste fantastic roasted, which concentrates their flavor and adds a layer of smokiness. This post from Food and Think, the Smithsonian magazine blog, includes some helpful suggestions and links. I've always thrown my tomatillos into a simple salsa verde, combining both roasted and raw tomatillos to get the best of both. Farmer Bill, of Green Thumb, thoughtfully pairs his tomatillo delivery with other salsa building blocks: yesterday a nice array of hot peppers and a spray of the freshest cilantro arrived. You don't need much more than that to make a nice salsa verde. I'm not sure it would pass muster in Santa Fe, but mine does the trick, and if I have a lot of it I'll use some as a marinade for grilled chicken, spooning extra over the chicken as it cooks (just discard any leftover marinade, and make sure to set aside plenty of the salsa verde to serve as sauce). Of course, it's also great with things in the vegetarian realm, like enchiladas or simply beans and rice.
A word about peppers: yesterday we received green jalapenos (somewhat spicy) and orange habaneros (damn spicy) and I used one of the latter in the recipe below. I removed all but maybe two seeds and the result was still pleasantly searing–and we can handle heat around here. Although I washed my hands, they were tingling for an hour or so from the pepper oils, so don't even think about getting your hands anywhere near your eyes if you've recently handled a spicy pepper, and check out this pepper guide if you're not sure what's what.
Roasted and raw tomatillo salsa
- Approx. 1 lb. (10-12 medium) or a few more tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 1 hot pepper (jalapeno, habanero, or other)
- 1 large (or 2 small) cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
- Optional: a pinch of sugar
Arrange half of the tomatillos on a lined tray and put under broiler, in the toaster oven or oven. Monitoring them carefully, cook tomatillos until softened and blackened in spots. Alternatively, you can place tomatillos directly over a low flame of a gas stove, until skins begin to blister.
Meanwhile, use the tip of a paring knife to cut out the stem ends of the remaining tomatillos, and discard. Chop tomatillos roughly into fourths, then put both the raw and cooked ones into a food processor or blender. Cut open the peppers. Depending on the level of heat you desire, either leave in or discard seeds. In a jalapeno, you can leave in the seeds and achieve a moderately spicy result. Unless you're a thrill seeker, you probably want to remove most of the seeds if the hotter varieties of pepper. Roughly chop the pepper and throw into the mix, along with the garlic, salt, and lime. Pulse in the food processor until mixture is coarsely blended, with small pieces (adjust the texture to your liking). Add cilantro, pulse a few more times, and taste for seasoning. Add more salt, lime, and/or cilantro, and sugar if you like.
Note: this sauce is best left to sit for an hour or two, if not overnight, to allow flavors to mellow together.