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Cooking with Tomatillos

The fresh lemony tang of tomatillos makes them one of the newest darlings of the Mexican and Southwestern kitchen. Sometimes no more than walnut-sized, tomatillos come in a range of pretty colors from green to yellow-green, to lavender, and wrapped in paper husks that make them look almost like miniature Chinese lanterns.

Tomatillos will keep in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator for almost a month. When you are ready to use them, peel off the husks and wash away the sticky substance that has held the husks in place.

Many Mexican cooks boil them for a short time to soften the fruit and encourage their best flavor. Roasting the tomatillos on a baking sheet under a hot broiler seems the best way to gather and concentrate their natural sweetness.

Rick Bayless, James Beard Foundation Chef of the Year and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, uses this fresh salsa as his starting point for numerous traditional Mexican dishes with an especially pleasing freshness.

Makes about 2 ½ cups

Ingredients

About 1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed – Tomatillos are ripe when they are firm and completely fill their husks.

Fresh Serrano or Jalapeno chilies – Start with about 5 chilies; adjust heat to your taste

2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

¼ cup loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro

Salt, about 1 generous teaspoon or to taste

Sugar, about 1 scant teaspoon – If tomatillos are especially sweet, you might not need all of the sugar.

Method

* Place tomatillos on a baking sheet about 4-inches below a very hot broiler. When tomatillos blister, blacken and soften on one side, turn them over and roast the other side; takes about 10 minutes.

* Roast chilies and garlic in a heavy skillet over medium heat until blackened in spots and relatively soft. Cool; remove stems from the chilies and peel garlic.

* Place roasted tomatillos and any juices in the roasting pan, plus chilies and garlic, in food processor and pulse until mixture becomes a coarse-textured puree.

* You should have a tempting salsa with interesting texture and chunks of roasted chilies and garlic. Scrape salsa into a serving bowl and stir in between ¼ and ½ cups water to bring salsa to desired consistency.

* Scoop chopped onion into a medium strainer and rinse under cool water. Remove excess water and stir onion into salsa, along with cilantro. Adjust seasonings, especially sugar and salt.

* Make the puree ahead, but salsa should be finished as near the last minute as possible.

Additional uses for tomatillo salsa

Scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and tomatillo – For 4 servings, beat 8 eggs, 3 tablespoons cream or yogurt, and a generous teaspoon of salt. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet, lower heat to medium, add 2 cups sliced mushrooms (forage for wild or unusual mushrooms at the market). Stir-cook until mushrooms are wilted. Stir in 2/3 cups salsa and reduce until mushroom mixture is thick. Stir in eggs and cook to your taste. Serve with a light topping of additional salsa and a generous sprinkle of cilantro leaves.

Seared chicken and spinach for pasta – For 4 servings, sear about 1 pound cubed, boneless and skinless chicken breast. Stir-fry until chicken is nicely browned and barely done. Remove chicken from skillet. Add 12 ounces steamed and rinsed spinach along with 1 cup salsa. Stir until spinach is cooked. Serve over pasta sprinkled with fresh Mexican cheese.

Avocado soup with orange and tomatillo – For 6 servings, place 6 cloves roasted and peeled garlic in food processor along with 2/3 cup salsa, 2 ripe avocados, a tablespoon orange zest and about 2/3 cup loosely packed cilantro. Stir in 2 1/3 cups rich beef broth and season with salt and pepper. Serve cool in a pretty goblet. Top with a dollop of salsa and sprinkle of cilantro on top.

Finally

Once you begin to broaden your understanding of the role of tomatillos in everyday cooking, you will be amazed at the tangy fresh flavor they bring to a wide range of dishes.