One of the ingredients I missed most keenly on return to Europe after our 7-year stint in Mexico was the Mexican green tomato, aka tomate verde or tomatillo. Green tomatoes a la Mexicana are, of course, not just unripe pomodori, but another animal altogether. They belong not to the Solanum but the Physalis family – those little orange fruits inside a papery husk that sometimes come as a garnish for desserts in fancy schmanzy restaurants? Same family, only difference is that Mexican green tomatoes never go orange but stay resolutely, freshly verdant, even when ripened. They have a unique, sharp piquancy, much closer to green gooseberries than tomatoes, and they’re an indispensable part of the Mexican salsa scene (and I’m not talking Strickly here), hence my hankerings.
Thankfully, all was not lost. I tracked down some seeds (Suttons in the UK has them, among others, and they’re widely available in the US), sowed them laboriously in little trays of potting compost at the end of winter, then sat back and waited expectantly. Imagine my delight when they popped up merrily. I planted them out as soon as all danger of frost was past (they’re not frost-hardy) and by September they were dripping with fruit – so much so, I could hardly handle my harvest and took to doling them out to workshoppers and passersby.
Many dropped to the ground and quietly decomposed. And here’s the thing: as they decompose, something rather magical happens (well, two things actually): first, the papery husk sheds its paperiness and becomes a sort of filigree hairnet – or even one of those very becoming face veils beautiful ladies used to wear at funerals to hide the tears, or to conceal blemishes – leaving the pale green fruit imprisoned inside:
The next excitement came when I discovered that never again would I need to mess about with pots and soil because nature did the job all by itself. How come? Open up a Mexican green tomato aka tomate verde or tomatillo and you’ll find it’s a bit of a seed bomb.
Left to its own devices, such as on your compost heap, it will germinate quietly through the winter and come summer you’ll have a forest of little green tomato plants popping up amongst the avocado stones, eggshells and coffee grounds. Neat, huh? I love this kind of gardening (my lamb’s lettuce/mache/Nusslisalat does me the same favour).
Here, by popular request (well one anyway), are some ideas, richly illustrated (also by popular request), for using up your own bumper harvest:
SALSA DE TOMATE VERDE (1)
This one, made from raw tomates, is a brilliant green, with a fresher, tarter flavour than the next one where the tomates are cooked first. For fresh green chiles, use jalapeños, peperoncini or piments verts – whatever you can find in your neck of the woods in the fresh green chile line that’s got a bit of heat – cut them open, stroke the cut surface and lick your finger gingerly to gauge the heat – then decide if you want to add one, or two. Coriander is absolutely key, and authentic (for American readers, coriander = cilantro); the olive oil is definitely not (never used in Mexican cooking), but it does add a certain je ne sais quoi…Serve with quesadillas, tacos, grilled meats, fish etc. It will keep for a few days in the fridge, but doesn’t freeze well.
Makes about 250ml (1 cup) sauce
12-15 tomates verdes (about 250g)
1 spring onion, chopped
1-2 fresh green chiles, de-seeded, finely chopped
Plenty of chopped coriander
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
- Remove husks from tomates and cut in halves or quarters.
- Place in the food processor or blender with the remaining ingredients and process till fairly finely chopped.
SALSA DE TOMATE VERDE (2)
For this one, the tomates verdes/tomatillos are simmered with fresh green chiles till just soft, then blended with [raw] onion, garlic and coriander. The tomates lose their brilliant colour once cooked, but the flavour is good – and subtly different from the fresh one above. The salsa will keep in the fridge for a week or so, and it also freezes well.
Makes about 250ml (1 cup) sauce
12-15 tomates verdes (about 250g)
1-2 fresh green chiles
1 small onion or shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt to taste
Plenty of coriander, roughly chopped
- Remove husks , place tomates verdes in a saucepan and barely cover with water.
- Cut the tops off the chiles, split in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds. Add to the pan.
- Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes or until tomates turn from pale green to khaki-coloured and are soft but not totally collapsed.
- Pull pan off the heat and allow to cool a bit.
- Tip into a blender add quartered onion, garlic and salt to taste and blend till smooth.
- Add the coriander, check the seasoning and blend again.
- Serve with quesadillas, tacos etc.
PIPIAN VERDE DE PEPITAS (MOLE VERDE) – the advanced lesson…
Close to the rather smart club in Cuernavaca where we used to play tennis, we discovered a [distinctly un-smart] place called Mi Cabaña, a kind of pop-up shack open only at weekends and on high days and holidays, where they served just two moles: poblano and verde (this one). We perched on stools and feasted on either chicken or pork simmered in the sauce, with fresh tortillas to mop up any excess. It’s my all-time, desert-island, favourite Mexican sauce, with its haunting flavours of toasted nuts and seeds, sharp tomates verdes and green peppers or chiles poblanos, and a suspicion of cuminseed and epazote if you have it – and if not, coriander. (Note that if you use canned chiles poblanos, you can skip the grilling and peeling step.)
Serve the mole as at Mi Cabaña with cooked chicken or pork (simmer the chosen meat first in water with onion, garlic, carrots and herbs till tender, and use some of the stock to dilute your sauce) and fresh tortillas. The quantity is quite large – it’s a bit of a production so while you’re at it you might as well make lots. Like most moles, it improves with age so you don’t need to use it all in one sitting, and it freezes well.
Makes about 500ml (2 cups) sauce, enough for 8-10 people
500g tomates verdes
2 small green peppers or chiles poblanos
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
25g each sesame seeds and peeled almonds
50g green pumpkin seeds
1 onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, mashed
2 fresh green chiles (jalapeños, peperoncini, piments verts), split in half, de-seeded and chopped
4 lettuce leaves or 1 Little Gem lettuce, roughly chopped
Plenty of coriander or epazote (Mexican wormseed), roughly chopped
A good pinch of cuminseed
Oil to fry the sauce
250-300ml stock [or juice from cooking the tomates]
- Peel away the papery husks and place the tomates in a saucepan with enough water to barely cover them. Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft but not totally collapsed (they will burst open).
- Drain the tomates and reserve the liquid.
- Grill the peppers or chiles poblanos over a gas flame (or in the oven with grill, or on the bbq) until thoroughly blistered and blackened. Rub off skins under running water and remove stems and seeds. Chop roughly.
- In a large frying pan or sauté pan, heat some oil over moderate heat and fry the sesame seeds, almonds and pumpkin seeds till the almonds and sesame seeds are evenly golden and the pumpkin seeds start to pop about a bit – don’t let them burn or they will be bitter. Tip them onto a plate and let them cool a little. Then tip into a blender and grind to as smooth a powder as you can manage. Scrape down and grind again if necessary.
- Add to the blender the onion, garlic, fresh chiles, cooked tomatoes, peeled peppers or poblanos, lettuce leaves, cilantro or epazote and cuminseed and blend the mixture till smooth. If necessary to make the blades turn, add some of the reserved tomate liquid. Scrape down the sides to dislodge any bits that have stuck, season with salt to taste and re-blend till smooth.
- Heat more oil in the frying/sauté pan over moderate heat and tip in the blended sauce (it will plop away alarmingly, so keep a lid handy). Lower the heat, remove the lid and let the sauce reduce for 5-10 minutes or until reduced and concentrated, stirring so it doesn’t stick. Add enough stock or reserved tomate juice to thin the sauce to a coating consistency and simmer for a further 15 minutes.
- Add the chosen, cooked meat to the sauce, bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes to heat through and meld the two together (alternatively, freeze the sauce and bring it together with its meat at a later date).
SALSA OF DRIED CHILES WITH TOMATES VERDES
For this gorgeous, spicy sauce (great with white meats or fish) you need a good supply of dried Mexican chiles (e.g. El Sol in Basel). It’s based on four different kinds – ancho, pasilla, guajillo and the heavenly ripened, dried and smoked chipotle – plus onion, garlic and tomate verde. Because of the chiles, it ends up a beautiful, reddish-brown – the tomates contribute sharpness rather than colour, to contrast with the heat of the chiles. It’s a feisty sauce, so if necessary, whisk in a little crème fraîche if you find it too spicy. Goes beautifully with poultry, pork or a meaty kind of fish (monkfish?) huss?), plus it freezes beautifully.
Makes about 800ml/3 cups sauce, enough to go with 2 meat or fish dishes for 4-6 each
3 chiles anchos, 3 chiles pasilla, 3 chiles guajillo, 2 chiles chipotle
2 cloves garlic
500g (about 30) tomates verdes
salt and pepper
a pinch of cuminseed
1 Tbsp oil for frying the sauce
500ml chicken stock (or 2 tsp powdered chicken stock + 500ml boiling water)
- Snip the stalks off the chiles, make a slit down the sides, tip out the seeds and open up the chiles.
- Heat a griddle or heavy, ungreased frying pan over moderate heat and toast the opened up chiles gently until lightly toasty and fragrant, pressing them flat with a palette knife – about 3 minutes on each side. Be careful they don’t burn!
- Put the toasted chiles in a big bowl and cover with warm water. Leave to soak for at least 30 minutes or until floppy.
- Skin and halve the onion and place it face side down on the griddle/frying pan, together with the (unpeeled) garlic cloves. Toast onion and garlic, turning them from time to time, until the onion has some toasty brown spots and the garlic is softened inside its skin. Tip onion and garlic into a blender.
- Remove papery husks from the tomates verdes and place in a saucepan. Barely cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes or until they turn from pale green to khaki-coloured and are soft but not collapsed. Lift them into the blender using a slotted spoon.
- Strain the toasted, soaked chiles and add them to the blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add cuminseed and blend till quite smooth.
- In a large, deep frying pan or sauté pan, heat the oil. Keeping a lid close by, tip in the blended sauce and clap on the lid – remove when the splashing has died down and stir the sauce. Lower the heat and simmer salsa for about 10 minutes or until somewhat thickened and reduced
- Add the stock (or stock powder dissolved in water) and simmer another 15 minutes or until salsa is well flavoured. Strain if wished, pressing down hard on the solids to extract maximum sauce. Return strained sauce to the pan (or freeze in 2 separate containers for later use)
- Heat before serving with chosen meat or fish.