What to do with a bunch of tomatillos
Traditional recipe adapted and fiddled with by Jay Lawrence
Anybody who knows me knows I love all things Mexican. My wife, my family, the culture, the country and the food. About this time of the year, I haunt the produce aisle of my favorite ethnic market to search out the ingredients for a year-end family favorite recipe – roasted tomatillo salsa.
This is a simple recipe, the ingredients are inexpensive and common, and doesn’t take very long to make. Judging by the ‘sad puppy’ eyes on family faces when I don’t make it for Christmas, lots of people like it. Some demand it. There are way too many Desert Explorers to make it for everybody, so here goes:
First you need tomatillos, a weird little fruit that looks like a green tomato with papery leafy wrapper. They’re not even related to tomatoes and taste nothing like them. They’re acidic and tart when eaten raw, but when roasted they take on a whole new life. You’ll need about 1-1/4 pound of them for each quart of salsa you plan to make. In a chain grocery like Ralphs or Vons expect to pay about $1.49 to $2.00 a pound for them. If you head to your local ethnic market, they’re about 50 cents a pound (and usually much better looking and more fresh). Look for the smaller darker ones, about 2” or so in diameter. The big ones are pulpier and don’t have as much flavor. They grow year round but they’re especially nice around year-end.
Next, you’ll need some serrano chiles. Bigger ones, like as long or longer than your middle finger, one or two per quart of salsa. More if you like it spicier. If there are only little ones available just use more.
Also you’ll need some garlic, about eight large cloves per quart, plus some salt. That’s it. Your shopping is done.
Now the fun! Throw the tomatillos into a (clean) sink full of really hot water and let them sit for a while. After they’re not so hot, peel the now-loosened paperish coverings off them and toss them in a bowl. Tomatillos grow on the ground so there will be some dirt involved. How much of that gets into your recipe is up to you.
Next, the roasting. This is where the magic happens... Put the tomatillos into a roasting pan. I like to put them stem side down so they don’t roll around. Put them in the broiler 4-5” inches away from the overhead flame. Leave them 5-8 minutes until they are browned on top with some burnt spots, then pull them out, turn the tomatillos over and do the other side. Take out and leave them to rest and cool. You will notice they have softened and leaked some juice. Do not panic, the charred skin, softened fruit and the gooey juice is the good stuff!
Put the chiles in a pie pan and do the same thing with them. Char and soften. Pay attention here, since roasting a large batch of chilis can give off aromatics that may drive you out of the kitchen with teary eyes in a coughing fit if you overdo it or the kitchen is not well ventilated. Turn on the fan!
Now the garlic. Smack the (BIG) head(s) of garlic on a countertop with the heel of your hand and throw the cloves into a dry cast iron pan on your stovetop, paper and all. Don’t peel them. Toast them over a medium heat, stirring them around now and then. What you are looking for is well-charred paper shells and softened garlic cloves.
Let everything cool enough so it’s easy to handle and get ready for the blender. Throw 8-9 big garlic cloves, 1-3 charred serranos (pull off the stems), one tablespoon of salt, about 2/3 cup of tomatillo juice and half a dozen tomatillos into your blender. The skins will peel off the garlic easily if you have charred them enough. Just squeeze ‘em.
Remembering good kitchen practices, cover the blender top with a folded towel. Pulse the blender 4-5 times to get these ‘starter’ items blended and ground up, then add enough tomatillos to make a quart. Pulse some more to break things up, blend it a bit to the consistency you think you want and Presto! You have salsa. My preference is a little on the chunky side, but some folks like it smoother. Either way, pour it into a jar (use a funnel, it’s thick) and throw it into the fridge. It can be eaten immediately, and I recommend tasting as you go.
Really, it is better after a day or two in the fridge. It will thicken up due to the syrupy nature of the tomatillo juice. The flavors get a chance to bloom and blend a bit. Be forewarned that the heat of the chiles will increase after it has sat for a day or two so you might want to start off with 1-2 chiles per quart before you get carried away thinking “gee, this isn’t very spicy” and really surprise yourself. (Interesting side note: in Mexico, when you have eaten too many chiles and really hurt yourself, you are said to be “enchilado.” Literally, “chilied.”)
After you’ve used up all the tomatillos, you will probably have some leftover garlic and chiles. The soft roasted garlic is pretty good spread on toasted french bread with some avocado and salt or some soft brie... just sayin’.
The roasted tomatillo salsa is good for dipping chips, on nachos, on chilaquiles, tacos, scrambled eggs... you get the idea. You can tart it up with diced onions, ciliantro and/or avocado.It will keep in the fridge for a month or more, but if you have a bunch and want to use it up, I recommend pouring it over a browned pork shoulder and letting it cook slowly, covered, for 3-4 hours in a 275° oven or a crock pot. You won’t be disappointed. ~ Jay