In a Stew 

Defending the tomatillo.


I feel sorry for tomatillos, the way I once felt bad for the last kid picked for the kickball team at recess. They languish on otherwise empty farmers market tables at the end of the morning, often destined for the compost pile, because tomatillos are nobody's favorite fruit.

They're so tart the only people willing to eat them are the culinary equivalents of polar-bear swimming-club members. And few people seem to know how to cook with them. The tomatillo remains an outcast, watching from the sidelines while the more popular fruits of summer twirl on the dance floor. Once in a while a bowl of green salsa gets made; more often they rot in the fridge before you get around to it.

If only more people were exposed to my chile verde recipe, tomatillos would quickly become in short supply.

Once, a batch of this spicy tomatillo stew got dumped on the floor. This wasn't a floor that was clean enough to eat off of. But unmentionable liberties were taken with the five-second rule as we scooped it with spatulas and into bowls, from which we ate like fiends.

Tomatillos look like paper lanterns stretched around extra-large light bulbs. A member of the nightshade family, like tomatoes, some people mistakenly assume tomatillo is Spanish for "little tomato" (that would be "tomatito"). The word tomatillo comes from the Aztec "miltomatl," which means, appropriately, "round and plump with paper." Mesoamerican habitants have been enjoying tomatillos since at least 800 B.C., and my chile verde dates back to those early times. It's made principally of ingredients prevalent in early Central America: tomatillos, chiles, and meat. Pork is typically used, but most any meat will do — it works great with extra-tough deer cuts, like shank, that have been braised three to four hours at 300 degrees, melting the cartilage into creamy gelatin.

The tomatillo tartness penetrates the animal parts it's cooked with, revealing savory and tender secrets you never knew your meat even had. Meanwhile, the tomatillo becomes transformed into a surprisingly rich and edible version of itself.

To serve five people, start by browning one-and-a-half pounds of meat, cut into 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 pan-cleaning, and it's easier to develop a satisfyingly golden-brown crisp. For extra-tough cuts, start by oven-browning the whole roast until it gets a shiny shell, then remove, cool, and cube. After the meat is nicely browned, braise in water and wine with bay leaves and salt, tightly covered at 300 degrees, until the meat softens, adding more water and wine as necessary.

Add these braised chunks to an oiled pan, and after it starts frying, add chopped onion and chopped garlic. Take a moment to savor the odor of hot brown meat and raw onion cooking together. Sprinkle with salt and sample.

Season the meat with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper, two teaspoons of garlic powder, and a teaspoon of cumin powder. When the onions are translucent, add a quart of chicken stock. Simmer for half an hour.

With the meat under control, it's time for the peppers. Any and all varieties should be considered for this task, and the more variety the better. Poblanos, jalapeños, bell peppers, dried red chile, Jimmy Nardellos, senoritas, concha de toros, Bulgarian fish peppers ... whatever capsicum you've got, chop or crumble (in the case of dried) into the mix, removing the seeds and membranes of the hot ones as you see fit, given your audience.

Slice a pound of tomatillos in half and liquefy, adding a cup of cilantro and two garlic cloves. Add this potent puree to the meat and peppers. (Both should be half-dissolved by now.) 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 to thicken a bit. Serve with tortillas or rice.

There's no way around the fact that a good pot of chile verde takes time. But while the cooking time is long, the prep time is short. Once it's cooking it's easy to keep it cooking for hours more, adding water when necessary, and I've only noticed improvement with longer cooking.

Whether it's used with a succulent piece of pork or on a slow-cooked shank, chile verde is a dish worth waiting for. It's a dish worth eating off a dirty floor. And even if Microsoft applications label "tomatillo" as a misspelled word, this ancient fruit has a place in today's kitchen.



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