Mexican food is, without a doubt, my favorite type of food, and though it's been a bit underrepresented in the first few posts on this site, don't worry, the balance will be more than restored in the near future.
Starting now, with Salsa Verde.
One of the first things I set out to make when I began to cook Mexican food was a good tomatillo salsa. Since it is equally at home on a huarache or tamales colados as it is on a huge Mission burrito, knowing how to make salsa verde is a skill that will pay off both immediately and also later as you dig deeper into the cuisine. Salsa verde is practically ubiquitous and for good reason. Especially when roasted, it is savory, sweet, and tangy, and thus the perfect accompaniment to fatty meats, rich beans, or even simple fried tortillas.
My first attempts at making this sauce were typical of most all of my first attempts at a certain dish: under-researched and over-complicated. I had almost no idea what the salsa was actually composed of, so I just started throwing green things into blender until I had some sort of green sauce that tasted mostly like disappointment and failure. Two flavors I know oh so well.
It turns out, a good salsa verde is actually incredibly easy to make, and can have as little as two or three ingredients. Seriously, that's it. Time and again I am reminded that because food traditions are born from necessity—from the confluence of what nature has given and what society has limited—often the most humble representation of a dish is also the most time-tested, authentic (whatever that means), easy to reproduce, and remarkably delicious. I think that when possible it's incredibly beneficial to first learn how to cook a dish or condiment in its most basic form before getting all Chotchkie's manager about the whole thing and demanding everything be ornamented with a minimum 15 pieces of flair.
Here's all you really need to make a great tomatillo salsa:
- Tomatillos: obviously
- Chiles: traditionally something spicy and green, like a serrano or jalapeño. Dried arbols or something red and hot would work just fine though.
- A rock and then another rock: for smashing the two together (or a blender)
- Heat: for roasting or boiling. Optional.
- Onion and cilantro: also, optional.
- Salt: because it's food so of course.
Here's how I made the above salsa verde.
Start with some tomatillos. I went with 8, which yielded about 2 cups of salsa. When buying tomatillos it's important to peel back the outer papery skin and check to make sure that the fruit itself is in good shape. You want it to be taught and darker green. More yellow, pale tomatillos should be avoided, as should those with soft, wrinkled skin. Oh, and tomatillos generally cost about $4 per pound at Whole Foods and $1 per pound and a well stocked Mexican market. Do with that what you will.
When you get them home, peel and discard the papery outside, rinse the sticky flesh, and then decide how you want to prepare them. Raw tomatillos are very tangy, almost sour, and when puréed make a very bright, very tart salsa. This isn't my favorite representation of this salsa, but it does have a place, and it can be occasionally brilliant, especially spooned over fatty pork tacos on a hot day.
The more popular approach to tomatillo based salsas is to cook them. This is done in one of two ways, either boiled or roasted. The first tames the tartness and exchanges it for a deeper sweetness. Roasting does the same but also adds another layer of charred savory, bitterness that I really love. It's my favorite approach and the one I went with on this occasion.
Green chiles are the obvious additions here, and the smaller, slightly hotter serrano pepper is more commonly used than the more easily found jalapeño. But both have great flavors and make for a wonderful salsa. How many chiles you add depends entirely on how much heat you want your salsa to have. Deseeded jalapeños will be relatively mild while serranos with the seeds left in (which is, according to Diana Kennedy, how they are traditionally used in most of Mexico) pack a much more picante punch. I watched a lot of youtube videos in Spanish (which I regrettably don't speak, by the way) of women across Mexico making this dish, and I was shocked, impressed, and shamed to see that almost all had a 1:1 ratio between tomatillos and serranos. I thought I had a high tolerance for heat. I, apparently, have work to do still. I went with a relatively modest 3 chiles for 8 tomatillos.
The next step is to cook your ingredients. Normally, this is when I'd put everything on a foil lined baking sheet under the broiler, but as I mentioned in the Accidentally Healthy Enchiladas post, my broiler is terrible. But in watching various youtube videos I realized two things:
- The charring and cooking of the tomatillos doesn't necessarily have to happen simultaneously
- The more juices and charred bits you can save from the cooked tomatillos, the better your salsa will be
So I threw out the idea of cooking on foil (which I had learned from Rick Bayless) and instead chose to go with a very hot pan. I went stainless steel here because the general rule with cast iron skillets is to avoid cooking excessively acidic things in them (it supposedly degrades the seasoning) and the temperature I wanted was too hot for non-stick (which gets poisonous at high heat). The trick here is to really charge your pan with a lot of heat. The point is to char the ingredients in a hot dry skillet, and without any oil to lubricate it a pan that wasn't hot enough would stick miserably. The tomatillos will still grab hold a little here, but not so much that they fall apart when you try to flip them. Leave the pan on a hot burner for a few minutes. You know it's hot enough if when you flick water at it the droplets actually ball up and roll around the pan for a bit as opposed to immediately bubbling off. When that happens, place the tomatillos, chiles, and a few cloves of garlic (still in the skins) in the pan and leave alone for a few minutes. Then flip and ignore again.
The goal here is to get as good a char as you can on a round surface with a flat pan. It won't be the same broader coverage you get with a broiler, but it will be plenty good enough. Once everything is charred, the next step is to cook the ingredients through. To do this, simply pour about a half cup of water onto the pan and immediately cover it with a lid. In about five minutes the tomatillos will be cooked through, the water will have cooked off, and it will look like this:
At this point simply remove the skins from the garlic (which should be very soft now) and transfer everything to a blender. Add a quarter cup of water to the still hot pan and scrape up any burnt bits left in it. Dump that burnt tomatillo water into the blender. Add a good pinch of salt and blend until smooth (or not).
I typically cook a half a white onion with the chiles and tomatillos, but I noticed that on a lot of the videos I watched the onions were actually added raw at the end. This made sense as a textural contrast in the otherwise smooth sauce and also worked to brighten the whole very roasted and sweet sauce with a raw onion's bite. Though I do think it's a good idea to rinse the raw onions after they've been cut to keep some of that bite in check (another Rick Bayless technique that I will not be abandoning any time soon).
In addition to onions, you could also add some chopped cilantro here, but before doing so I think it's good to first think about what the salsa will be used for. If it's a dip for chips, I say add onion and cilantro and maybe even a bit of lime. But if the end goal is for it to be added to tacos, where onions and cilantro will likely already be heavily represented, then I say keep it simple. And because the flavor of cilantro is quickly degraded by heat, if you are going to be cooking the salsa, like in chilaquiles or enchiladas, then definitely keep the cilantro out and instead finish the entire dish with it. Or don't. Cilantro is not half as necessary a flavor in Mexican food as we up here in the States like to think. Instead, it's one of many unique and delicious herbs, but that's another post for another time.
Until then though, get three ingredients and make some salsa verde. And if you do, take a picture and send it to me at email@example.com. Tell me how you made it and what you used it for and I'll post it on this site.
Have any questions or comments? Write them in the appropriately named comments section at the bottom here.