Alligators, Chinese bamboo pit vipers, tomatillos, frogs with sling shots. All of them green. Only three of them dangerous. And while I’d love to pass an idle hour regaling you with harrowing yarns of brushes with cruel death, I guess I’ll write about tomatillos instead.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS
Tomatillos (TOH-muh-TEE-yos) are inexpensive, easy to use, tasty, good for you and, best of all, safe to use around small children.
Unlike Chinese bamboo pit vipers.
THE STEPS YOU TAKE
Tomatillos, in case you’ve just returned from a decadeslong deployment at a CIA safe house in Smolensk, are like small, green, gift-wrapped tomatoes. With their wrinkled, papery husks, I think they look more like a drawing of a vegetable than an actual vegetable. And, yes, I’m aware that, technically, they’re a fruit. But so are tomatoes and eggplants, for the love of cry eye, and I don’t hear you grousing about them, now, do I?
If you want to get all botanical, here are some of the cooler facts you can share with Madge at the water cooler on your smoke break: Tomatillos belong to a group of plants (a "clade," if you will) called "angiosperm." (Insert your own joke here, kids; my editor still has standards.) It’s also part of the nightshade family, along with the aforementioned tomatoes and eggplant, as well as tobacco (!!!) and belladonna, the deadly poison allegedly used by Agrippina the Younger to poison her husband, the emperor Claudius, and, while that’s all water under the bridge, it does remind us that, when you’re time traveling, stay the heck away from ancient Rome.
But, we seem to have strayed from topic.
Tomatillos are tart and firm and rarely eaten by themselves, by which I mean, of course, "on their own." I’m aware that they’re not self-consuming. Their most common use is in green sauces, like salsa verde, a term that translates simply as "green sauce" and is so named because — and you might want to write this down — it’s a sauce and it’s green.
Now, there are lots of green sauces out there, especially from Central and South America. These sauces generally are little more than ground, pounded or blended mixtures of anything green: herbs, avocado, chiles and tomatillos. Keep that in mind when you’re trying to think of what to serve them with. Latin flavor profiles include things like rice and beans, chiles, cumin, cilantro and lime. And lots of meat, if you’re of that mind.
Raw, a tomatillo is firm and somewhat acidic, with a bright, floral and almost citrusy flavor. Cooked, it breaks down almost completely and gains a warmer, earthier and sweeter flavor profile.
If you’ve never used tomatillos before, just run out and get a pound or two. They’re pretty inexpensive, especially in local Mexican markets, and they should keep for at least a week. Avoid like a pit viper any mushy ones, and make sure the papery husk looks at least somewhat fresh and greenish, not all brown and wrinkly like my Uncle Sid before the face-lift.
To get started, you’re going to peel off the husk — an easy task that, trust me, is far, far less irritating than stemming spinach or pinching the ends off of green beans, two chores that fall on my Personal Pleasure Scale somewhere between teeth extraction and digging my own grave. You’ll notice that the tomatillos themselves are sticky underneath the husk. That sticky stuff contains some chemicals called withanolides, which, along with the husk, help ward off insects. Once you’ve peeled off their evening gowns and dinner jackets, just run the naked tomatillos under cold water to remove the sticky goo. You also could soak them in a bowl of water for 5 minutes or so before peeling. This dissolves that goo, loosening the husks, which will shrug right off.
Now you’re ready to cook.
If you’re using the tomatillos raw, there’s nothing more you need to do before cutting them. Admittedly, some people use a paring knife to carve out the little indentation where the stem was, but, truthfully, I’ve never bothered with that, and I’m a reasonably successful adult who’s made it perilously close to the teetering cusp of dotage.
If you’re going to cook them before use, you can do it one of three ways. First, you can boil them in salted water for about 10 minutes, after which they’ll be a darker green and very soft. Or, you could run them under the broiler for 7 to 8 minutes a side, until their skin is black as the vacant eyes of a zombie dentist. Or, you could put them on a very hot, dry skillet, griddle or cast iron pan. Again, leave them there until blackened, then proceed. And if you’re taking routes two or three, be sure to use any juices exuded during the cooking process.
Here are some great and easy things to do with your tomatillos:
SALSA VERDE (OR, AS WE SAY IN ENGLISH, ‘GREEN SAUCE’)
Use fresh or cooked tomatillos: Pulse them in a food processor along with some jalapeno and cilantro. You can also add lime, avocado or both. Or, don’t pulse the onion. Instead, dice it, rinse it in cold water to remove some of the chemical compounds that make it harsh, and add it at the end for a more complex textural thing. And don’t forget the salt. Never forget the salt.
Once you do that a couple of times, experiment by adding other ingredients like garlic, avocado, other herbs and maybe even a little extra-virgin olive oil. Whatever you do, you can use the salsa as is on rice and meats or simply with chips. Or you can use it as a delicious braising liquid for small cuts of meat like pork chops or chicken.
The prepped vegetables for the salad could also be turned into a soup instead. Puree the mixture with a splash of vinegar and olive oil and you’ve got a lively green gazpacho.
SOUP AND SALAD
Quarter, slice or dice tomatillos and combine them, as if you were making a salad, with any other salacious items: tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, etc. Remember that tomatillos are acidic, sour, piquant, if you will, and therefore it wouldn’t hurt to combine them with some fattier ingredients like meats, cheeses or avocado. Then dress it with a citrusy vinaigrette. Or, listen to this: Make the salad, but leave out the fatty stuff and just do veggies (tomatillos, cukes, green pepper, garlic, chiles like jalapenos or poblanos, cilantro). Then puree the whole thing like some kind of maniac, season with a splash of vinegar (sherry, rice wine or cider), garnish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and BLAMMO! Green gazpacho! Holy pit viper, Batman.
Two key vocabulary words here: "green" and "chile." The latter means, roughly, Tex-Mex seasoning, beans and meat (unless you’re a vegetarian or a brontosaurus). The former means we eschew the darker-hued ingredients like kidney beans and tomatoes and opt instead for the lighter, greenish shades. Here’s what you do:
Brown some pork (or not) and add onion, green pepper and garlic. When it’s soft, add white beans (cannellini, great Northern), quartered tomatillos and anything else that makes sense with the previously mentioned two vocab words: summer squash, celery, chayote (my personal favorite), fresh chiles, you get the picture. Flavor it with any of the following: cilantro, cumin, chile powder, pepper, oregano, etc. Top with some green garnishes like cilantro, avocado, scallions, lime, a photograph of a frog, etc. Blammo: Green chile.
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