Market Share — tomatillo time
Tomatillos are a staple of Mexican cooking and are currently in season
Photos by Stacey DeWolfe
I am a creature of habit, and I’ve never been able to figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s not that I am unadventurous, per se; in fact, I love trying new things. But because my life is full of so many uncertainties, I also crave consistency where I can get it: in a bowl of Momofuku ramen in New York’s East Village, in a huevos rancheros from Café Habana in NoLita, in a mango from Chez Nino at the Jean-Talon market or in an Empire apple. The epitome of simple, consistent perfection, no matter where it comes from.
But I recently changed my routine. Instead of stopping at Birri Brothers, which is my first and, often, only stop at the market in the summer months, I have ventured further afield, discovering Jacques and Diane’s amazing carrots a few weeks back, and, this weekend, the gorgeous organic produce of Michel and Victoire Palardy (also at Jean-Talon). And since my mandate in this column is to delve into culinary realms both unfamiliar and, at times, intimidating, I came home from my afternoon jaunt with a large bag of ripe tomatillos, which are in season in Quebec.
Because they are used for salsa and other Mexican dishes, tomatillos are often assumed to be of the tomato family, but in reality they are closer to the ground cherry in texture and taste (not to mention that they, too, are wrapped in a papery sheath). When you peel back this sheath, you will find that the skin of the fruit is sticky as hell and needs to be washed and dried before roasting.
And roasting is what you want to do with them. Just coat them with a little oil and stick them in the oven at 400 F for about 40 minutes. When they “collapse,” as the Rebar cookbook instructs, it is time to take them out.
What surprises about the tomatillo is how sour it tastes, and how fresh, even when roasted. It is light, slightly lemony and needs little salt to season. And when roasted with some sweet peppers like the ones on sale at Chez Palardy, the combination of sweet, sour and smoky is hard to beat.
But let me return, for a moment, to the Rebar cookbook, as the dish I am talking about this week is an adaptation of one of its recipes. If you were a vegetarian in the ‘90s, as I was, or lived anywhere near the West Coast, you probably heard of Rebar, a vegetarian restaurant in Victoria which, along with Moosewood in Ithaca and Greens in San Francisco, was one of the decade’s veggie meccas. By all accounts, all three restaurants are still going strong, but it was Rebar that I turned to after a friend told me about their delicious tomatillo corn chowder.
Following recipes is anathema to me, but I looked to see what this chowder recipe entailed: slow roasting the tomatillos with sweet peppers (done), preparing a vegetable stock and keeping it warm (unnecessary) and assembling an array of vegetables and herbs (easily achieved).
To make enough soup for about eight to 10 people (leftovers are easily frozen in small tubs for later use), roast 12 tomatillos with five small sweet peppers. Because I am no longer interested in making or thinking about stock, I put one finely chopped large onion into a casserole with some grapeseed oil and let it caramelize over low heat for about 20 minutes. Then I added eight minced garlic cloves, a tablespoon of dried oregano, a teaspoon of coriander and half a teaspoon of salt.
I let the flavours meld a little bit, and then added two small chopped zucchini and four medium potatoes cut into small cubes. I also added another half teaspoon of salt, and two fresh Serrano chilies, finely minced. They were so pretty just sitting there in the pot that I let them cook a little and photographed them for your viewing pleasure.
Oh, and I should mention: when I got home from the market, I realized I forgot to buy corn, and so it simply became tomatillo, pepper and potato chowder. And though the recipe calls for cream or whole milk (thereby identifying itself as a chowder), I wanted to add my own touch and so threw in a third of a cup of raw almonds, which, when cooked and blended, add a nutty creaminess that I prefer to actual cream.
So now it became tomatillo, pepper and potato soup. To make it so, simply add four cups of water to the pot, bring it to a boil, and then turn it down to low and cover it. At this point, you may think the “stock” needs salt, but don’t add any until later on. Let it simmer for about an hour or so, until the potatoes are cooked, and then toss in the roasted vegetables and their juices.
If, at this point, it seems to need salt, then by all means go crazy. You can serve the soup as is or grab a hand blender or masher and go to town. Or, if you are reliant on old-fashioned counter-top appliances, throw a few cups into a traditional blender and give it a whirl.
Serve with scallions, cilantro or shredded carrot. And if you want something to go along with it, a simple cheese quesadilla works well, as does an equally simple taco of feta, chorizo and shredded carrot and radish with a squeeze of fresh lime. ■