When given a choice between the green salsa or the red salsa at a Mexican restaurant, I always go green. The thing is, I know what the red is going to taste like and this usually has to do with whether the tomatoes were ripe (rarely the case), or if they came from a can, which is not bad if you’re drinking beer on the couch and watching a game, but a big let down if you’re dining out. The green salsa always feels more exciting. It’s invariably a bit sour, a bit spicy and loaded with cilantro.
One thing you should know about me is that I am a sauce fiend. I want extra BBQ sauce for my burger, extra nuoc cham for my rice, and definitely extra salsa on just about anything. And chutneys, fuhgeddaboudit. You can imagine how proud I was when my one and a half year old demanded that we put sauce on her plate so she could “dip spicy.” You know what they say; teach your children well.
One of the main ingredients in salsa verde is the tomatillo. Not to be confused with green tomatoes, tomatillos are closely related to gooseberries and are often used in Mexican and Central American cooking. They have a slightly sour flavor and should be cooked, though just barely. This salsa verde recipe is wonderfully versatile. It can be used fresh as a salsa or as a sauce cooked over chicken or pork. It can also be made in mass quantities for a party and freezes well.
One of my favorite aspects of this recipe is that it uses a technique that most home chefs assume is impossible without access to a grill. It’s called fire roasting and is basically the process of searing your vegetables in a dry pan, ideally cast iron. The process is actually quite simple on the stovetop and creates so much warm flavor. If it’s summer time and you’re already on the grill, you can for sure take this outside. But on a rainy spring afternoon, the stovetop works just fine.
Tips and Tricks:
- Picking your tomatillos: tomatillos come in a husk that must be removed before cooking. The husk should completely cover the tomatillos and not be dried up and broken. Inside, tomatillos should be bright green in color. You may find them a bit sticky with a sap-like substance. If you wash them make sure to dry them well before throwing them in the pan, as excess water will prevent them from searing.
- Cilantro is a great ingredient for those who can stand it. I say “stand it” because it seems to be one of those foods that people either love or hate, as proven by I Hate Cilantro blog. I’ve read that for some people, cilantro tastes like soap and that this may be due to a genetic predisposition (see NYTimes article). I love cilantro and particularly like to use the stems in salsa recipes. They have a stronger flavor than the individual leaves and add great texture to the sauce. With the exception of when I’m using it strictly as a garnish, I’ll often use three quarters of the stems as well as the leaves.
- Equipment #1: for this recipe you will need a food processor. If you don’t have one, and don’t want to invest in the full size Cuisinart variety, I would recommend buying either a small one, or ideally the food processor and immersion blender duo. I use the immersion blender several times a week for soups, sauces and smoothies and the small blender is great for spices, garlic and onion when you don’t feel like chopping, and definitely for salsas. I used my large Cuisinart for this recipe because of the quantity but I have done it in several rounds with a mini processor and it worked just fine.
- Equipment #2: the best way to sear something on the stovetop is by using a cast iron pan. I came late to the cast iron game and am now a full convert. They retain heat, are naturally non-stick (as long as you preheat them), can be used with any utensils (i.e. plastic or stainless steel), and are much less expensive then Le Creuset. Don’t get me wrong, I love Le Creuset and it would work beautifully for this recipe. But at a fraction of the cost, cast iron is a fantastic alternative.
- It’s possible to get a charred look on your vegetables under the broiler, however, similar to the process of charing an eggplant for baba ganoush, I find that while the clean up is easier and the look deceivingly similar, the taste is not as smoky. I also find that for salsas in particular, you really want to be able to control how cooked your vegetables get, i.e. just barely, and this can be harder in an oven.
A bright yet warm sauce that can be used fresh with chips or as a condiment on sandwiches, as well as cooked with chicken, meat or fish. Make plenty of extra and freeze for your next party.
Quantity: makes approximately three cups.
Time to Prepare: 15-25 minutes depending on the size of your pan.
A dozen tomatillos, plus or minus a few if you vary greatly in size
1 green pepper, cut into fourths
1 jalapeno, sliced vertically. You can substitute more jalapeno and less green pepper if you like it hotter
½ yellow onion
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup cilantro, leaves and ¾ of the stem, very rough chop
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Prepare your tomatillos by removing the husks and placing them in a large bowl. Slice your green pepper and jalapeno. If you like your salsa on the milder side, remove half the seeds. Otherwise include all the seeds or add an extra jalapeno half for extra spice. Slice the half onion in half, trying to keep the slices together. Add the onions and peppers to the bowl with the tomatillos, along with two peeled garlic cloves.
On your stovetop, heat your cast iron pan on medium high heat. If you don’t have cast iron, you can use non-stick, however you will inevitably be left with some burnt remnants in the pan. Once the pan is hot, add the ingredients from your bowl. If you’re unsure whether your pan is sufficiently hot, splash a few drops of water in it. If the water dances around the pan and evaporates quickly, you’re good to go. You want every vegetable to touch the bottom of the pan so that it sears, so be sure not to overcrowd. My cast iron is rather small, so I do this in stages. Continue to toss the veggies every few minutes once they start to blacken. You want nice char spots all over the vegetables but not totally blackened. A toss every few minutes for about 8 minutes total should do it. If you’re not seeing char marks, make the pan hotter and alternatively if it’s smoking, turn it down.
Once all the vegetables have been charred, add them to the food processor with your salt and cilantro. Blend until smooth. Because you haven’t fully cooked your vegetables, the salsa should retain a good thick texture. Taste for more salt.
If you’re planning to use this as salsa, you’re done! For a creamier salsa, you can also add an avocado to the food processor. My plan for this salsa verde was to use it for chicken later than evening, but I couldn’t help sneaking a bit for my lunch of ham and Havarti on a corn tortilla. And sure enough, guess who was clamoring at my leg shouting “Spicy!” “Bite!”
If you want to use the sauce for chicken or pork to make a chile verde, just pour the sauce over shredded cooked meat and simmer. The sauce will release more liquid as it cooks so don’t be worried if it looks too chunky. Once other ingredients are added you might want to add a bit of salt.