About tomatillos

Tomatillos in shade house

I guess tomatillos are at the top of my list of the best things I’ve learned since tackling Mexican cooking. These little green gems  bring a slightly tart, bright flavor to Salsa Verde, and to a whole world of recipes for soups, salsas, and moles. They are often paired with roasted pumpkin seeds to make “pipian”. Along with the juice of limes, they are best friend to the mellow avacado.

Tomatillos are not tomatoes at all, although they are in the Nightshade family. They are more closely related to gooseberries, for what that is worth. The plant is native to Mexico. The vining plants are easy to grow, and the fruits dangle like pretty little papery lanterns.

tomatillos enterosThose paper husks are the most distinctive thing about tomatillos, and maybe the thing that gives the shopper pause when they show up in the grocer’s bin. I look for medium sized tomatillos, preferably ones where the husk is slightly open at the lower end, so that I can see bright green color and firm fruit. Avoid pale fruit, and especially fruit that looks wrinkled or shriveled. And who says you can’t open the husk to make sure the fruit is good? (You are allowed to do it with corn on the cob!). In Mexico, tomatillos are sometimes sold already husked, but I haven’t see this in the US.

You can store tomatillos in their husks as you would onions. When I get tomatillos home, I usually remove the husks and wash them. There is often a little dirt or sticky stuff inside the husk. Once dry, I have found I can store the peeled tomatillos in the refrigerator for a week or more.

tomatillos peppers before

Here are a batch of tomatillos all cleaned up and ready to be roasted with jalapeño and serrano chills to make a salsa. Notice the bright yellow green hue of the tomatillos. tomatillos peppers after

Here are the same ingredients after ten or fifteen minutes under the broiler. Notice that the tomatillos have changed to a olive green color. They can go into a blender at this point, along with the chilis (peeled and seeded) and some onions, garlic, lime juice, and salt to make a great salsa.Salsa Verde ingredients

It’s also possible to cook tomatillos in water along with other salsa ingredients.

Salsa Verde

and to process them into a salsa using the traditional molcajete, or stone mortar and pestle.

Two recipes: Peanuts and Slaw

Cabbage Peanut Slaw Peanuts are everywhere in Mexico. Big piles of peanuts in the shell are sold at every public market. Shelled peanuts are used in many of the various mole recipes. But the mix of peanuts with crisp cabbage is the best and highest use. Here are two recipes for slaw with peanuts. The first comes from an odd source – an American pastry chef living in Paris, but homesick for Mexican food. In his book The Sweet Life in Paris, David Lebovitz provides this recipe:

SALADE DE CHOUX AUX CACAHUETES

(PEANUT SLAW) Makes 6 servings ·     

  • ¼ cup (65 g) smooth peanut butter
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
  •  2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, or more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • ½ cup (65 g) roasted, unsalted peanuts
  • 1 small bunch radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely shredded
  • ½ bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or chives, chopped
  • 6 cups (500 g) shredded green or red cabbage
  • Coarse salt

In a large bowl, mix the peanut butter, garlic, peanut oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, and water until smooth. Toss in the peanuts, radishes, carrot, parsley, and cabbage, mixing until everything’s coated. Taste, then add a bit of salt and another squeeze of lemon juice, if necessary.

NOTES: Resist the temptation to use delicate Napa or leafy Savoy cabbage, both of which quickly get soggy from the peanut dressing. I use a mix of firm green and red cabbage, which I slice as thin as possible. Tossing the salad together at the last minute is essential to preserve the crunch of the cabbage, although the sauce can be made a few hours in advance and mixed with the cabbage and other ingredients right before serving.

VARIATIONS: Substitute toasted almonds or cashews for the peanuts or swap 1 tablespoon of dark sesame oil for 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil, adding a tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds to the salad.

We took a batch of this salad to a beach bonfire potluck, and it was a great hit, even made with pale green cabbage purchased at least three weeks ago. The second time I made it, I added some finely minced Serrano chili and some extra lime juice to the dressing, and it was a taste sensation. I admit to using Planter’s Dry Roasted Peanuts as the garnish, so extra salt there, as well. I am looking forward to making this recipe when I am able to buy really fresh, green cabbage and load the mix with fresh cilantro.

The second slaw and peanut recipe comes from Mary Jane Gangier, who served it to us at her Rancho Pitaya, a bed and breakfast and horse-riding stable outside of Oaxaca. Combining her Canadian roots and years of living in Oaxaca, Mary Jane has a great feel for variations on Mexican food.

CHINO LATINO COLESLAW

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups lightly packed cabbage (white or purple) sliced finely
  • 1 thickly grated carrot

Dressing;

  • 1 Tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 Tbsp Chinese sesame oil
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider or rice wine vinegar
  • 1 TBsp mayonnaise ( optional )
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican Buffalo sauce or similar.

Blend dressing ingredients well and toss with cabbage/carrot mix just before serving. Garnish in serving bowl or on individual plates with coarsely crushed roasted peanuts, the ones with chile and garlic are especially good.

About Chayote Squash

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After four winters in Mexico, we are learning how to cook with what is available and good in the Mexican markets. We no longer lament (much) the lack of a great selection of fresh produce, especially fresh greens and herbs.  We aim for the vegetables that travel and keep well, and that Mexico does a good job of producing.

Different kinds of squash show up in Mexican produce displays. A light green summer squash, similar to our zucchini, is called calabacita. They cook up just like zucchini. There are much larger squash, probably more like winter squash, which I haven’t tried. But the queen of the supermarket produce section is the handsome chayote squash. They are firm, yellow green, the shape and size of a pear, each one unblemished and slipped into its own small plastic bag ….a great contrast to the wilting lettuce and wrinkled bell peppers nearby.

Clearly, this is a vegetable to be prized, but how to cook it? The flesh of the chayote is much denser than a summer squash and very smooth. I tried making a chayote soup, but its appeal was all in the chilies and onions; it didn’t really let me taste the chayote.

We discovered a higher and better use for the chayote in Rick Bayless’s Salsas That Cook.  The chayote is chopped up and sautéed in oil along with onion until slightly browned, (about fifteen minutes), then combined with other vegetables or beans in several stews or salads. Prepared this way, the chayote still has some crunch and a pleasing neutral flavor, but seems to absorb the dressing or salsa with which it is paired.

Lentil Salad with Chayote and Onion

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Lentil & Chayote Salad

LENTIL SALAD WITH CHAYOTE AND ONION 

  • 2 cups lentils, preferably small green or brown ones
  • 1 ¼   cup salsa verde made with roasted tomatillos
  • ¼ cup good olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro
  • salt
  • 1 white onion, sl
  • 2 cups lentils, preferably small green or brown ones
  • 1 ¼   cup salsa verde made with roasted tomatillos
  • ¼ cup good olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro
  • salt
  • 1 white onion, sliced
  • 2 small chayote squash, cut into ¼ inch slices, and then ¼ inch strips
  • ½ cup Mexican queso anejo or parmesan cheese

 Bring a good sized pot of water to a boil and add lentils. Return water to a boil, then reduce heat to a good simmer until lentils are tender but not mushy, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well and pour into a bowl.

While lentils are cooking prepared the dressing by combining the salsa verde, 2 tablespoons of the oil, the lime juice, cilantro, and salt in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. Stir half the dressing into the warm lentils and set aside.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. Add onion and chayote strips and stir fry until browned, but still a little crunchy. Taste and season with salt.  Serve over fresh spinach, lettuce, or on its own, adding the remainder of the dressing to taste. Top with cheese.

About Salsa Extraordinare

Salsa bowl & beaker
For the past year, on the boat or on land, in Mexico, Oregon or Colorado, we have been cooking up salsas. These are richly flavored concoctions, usually a combination of fresh and dried chills, along with onions and garlic, red tomatoes and/or green tomatillos. All the salsa recipes come from a cookbook written by Rick Bayless and called Salsas That Cook. His premise is that once the salsa is made, it can be used for any number of dishes. He presents six salsa recipes, and gives seven or eight recipes for each of those salsas.

Dried CascabelsOur best dishes have been made with the recipe that Bayless says “is salsa at its complex best. It’s made with dried cascabel chills, shown above, and dried chipotle chilis.

Cascabels & chipotlesI want to taste the flavor of the chilis, but minimize the burn, so I am careful to slit open both dried and fresh chilis and remove the seeds and the membrane that holds them. This is what the dried cascabels and chipotles look like when they are ready to be roasted. In this case, they were roasted in a barbecue, and then soaked in hot water for twenty minutes or so to soften and reconstitute them.

Roasting VegiesThe rest of the ingredients also got roasted: white onion, garlic, plum tomatoes, and tomatillos. Then all of the above went into the blender, along with a little water, some thyme, and a little sugar and salt.  I’m not giving you the written recipe here, but you get the idea of the proportions. This made about 4 cups of salsa.

Shrimp Salpicon 2The Captain uses some of it to make this Shrimp Salpicon, and I used some for a wonderful vegetable stew, and to flavor a black bean soup. If you’re keen on exploring some of the flavor from different chills, the Bayless book is a great place to start.

A Story: Chipotles and Time

Jalapenos Fresh & DriedThis is a long story. I hope you have time to read it.

The very, very best fish tacos I have ever eaten were not found in Mexico. They were found on the city dock of Nanaimo, the second largest city on Vancouver Island, in Canada. They are served up there at a floating outdoor café called Penny’s Pelapa. Penny and her husband work out of a tiny building, combination kitchen and serving counter. You order at the counter and are eat at one of the tables under umbrellas. If it is stormy or rainy, the operation is closed that day.

The fish tacos at Penny’s are made with fresh caught local halibut,  almost certainly unloaded just down the dock that day. Along with fish, lettuce and cilantro, the Tacos include chipotle mayonnaise.  We ate those tacos one June day a few summers back when we were tied up in Nanaimo, and began to dream of how we could recreate them.  I focused on the chipotle mayonnaise, and decided to run across the street to the Safeway to see if I could find chipotle chilis.

“Chipotle” has recently been one of the flavors in favor in North America. There is a restaurant chain called ‘Chipotle’, and the flavor – or at least the word – is featured in chips, dips, and salsas. I sort of knew that chipotles were smoked jalapeño chilis, but I was in a supermarket!  In that Canadian Safeway, I had no trouble finding the small cans of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce. I also picked up a bottle of chipotle Tabasco Sauce. I thought I was well on my way to that wonderful Fish Taco.

Full of plans, I headed back to the dock.  On the way, I ran into Penny, out walking her dog after the noon rush.  I knew that Penny and her husband spent their winters in Mexico, and that they made great food. So I accosted her, and asked boldly about the secret of the great chipotle mayonnaise.

Penny looked kind of irritated, as if I wasn’t quite with the program. She said, “well, my husband does the cooking, and I don’t know all his secrets…”

“Oh, well…

“But”, said Penny, “he does make his own mayonnaise, from scratch….”

“Oh…”

“…and he smokes his own jalapeños…”

My quick fix dream fizzled, and I muttered thanks.  That was the first, but certainly not the last, time I realized that I shouldn’t confuse tiny outdoor kitchens and street food with food that is quickly prepared. And that the essential ingredient in much Mexican cooking is time and care.

And those chipotle chills? The photo above is of fresh jalapeño peppers next to the smoked and dried chipotle. How much time required to turn one into the other? Most sources I’ve read suggest that the smoking is at least overnight, if not for twenty four hours. Slow food!

About Jicama

Jicama drawingThe crisp texture and mild flavor make jicama an easy ingredient to incorporate in salads and slaws, plus they keep well and are readily available in Mexican grocery stores.  While appreciating all these fine qualities, I became curious about how they are grown and what the plant looked like. Internet research provided some interesting information.

Although it looks more like a turnip relative, jicamas are in the pea family. The plants have handsome leaves arranged in clusters of three, and bloom with pink pea flowers.  When cultivated commercially, each plant is trained to climb up a stake, the foliage growing up to about four feet before the globous root is large enough to harvest.

jicama3The cooking pros mention the pea-like flavor when talking about jicama – an association I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.