Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

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We had a friend over for tacos last night. I know he has excellent taste in tacos (despite an admitted penchant for Dorito  Tacos Bell Grande)in part because one of the first times we ever “ran into” someone out in NYC, we ran into him at our favorite Manhattan taqueria, the eponymous Taqueria LES, which makes great barbacoa and lengua tacos and chile salsa. Consequently, I wanted to bust out a few of my favorite taco night accoutrements for an especially appreciative audience.

We had this tomatillo salsa to eat while we were drinking margaritas and finishing up cooking the carnitas-style pork tacos with a red cabbage cumin slaw and pineapple salsa and a nopal poblano rajas taco with avocado cream and cotija.

The interesting thing about this recipe is that it functions as two-in-one in a way, depending on how long the ingredients are cooked. The version in the photos is on the less-cooked end of the spectrum, giving a lighter, tangier result. Cook the tomatillos and onions longer and it concentrates their natural sugars and flavor, darkening the color and making a richer, sweeter salsa. I’ve used the more cooked version as a base for pork chile verde as well as a salsa for chips. It’s sweet, tangy, and delicious. But this lightly charred version is the bright flavor I craved during the stultifying heat we are living in this week. It’s also pretty much as long as I could stand having the oven on in the kitchen.

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The grill is also a great way to achieve the smoky char that deepens the flavor of this salsa so intriguingly. Throw the peppers and onions straight onto the grate, but the tomatillos will burst, so keep them on a pan of some kind so all of the tomatillo juice isn’t lost.

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If you decide to go with the more cooked version, you will want a bit more lime juice to balance the sweetness of the tomatillos and onions. And of course, the number and heat level of the chiles you use is dependent on your heat tolerance. This version has a medium heat level- add or subtract accordingly.

Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

2 pounds tomatillos

1 large onion

3 serranos

1 jalapeño

1-2 limes

1/2 bunch cilantro

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

salt to taste

Remove the husk from the tomatillos, rinse and dry. Slice the chiles in half stem to tip and cut the onion into wedges. Peel the garlic cloves. Arrange everything on a baking sheet in an uncrowded  layer. Do this step in 2 batches if space is an issue, rather than crowding the pan.

Heat your broiler up and place the tray of vegetables under the heat source. Keep and eye on them, turning the vegetables or shaking the pan occasionally if they are browning too unevenly. Once everything is beginning to soften just a little and some of the surface has a little bit of a char on it, remove from the oven and set aside to cool for a little bit.

Cut the larger stems off the cilantro and roughly chop the leaves.

Juice a couple of limes and assemble your spices

Scoop the tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to break the chunks down and allow the mixture to move and mix. Add about half the lime juice and the cilantro leaves and spices and pulse a couple of times. Once you have reached your preferred consistency ( I like it on the chunky side) pour the salsa into your container and taste for salt and tanginess. If it needs more tartness, stir in more lime juice. Otherwise you’re halfway to a margarita.

The flavors really improve after sitting for at least 30 minutes so I would recommend waiting until then to make any major adjustments to the seasoning. If you prefer more heat at that point, stir in a pinch or two of ground cayenne or chipotle.

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Cheating Winter: Canned Tomato Salsa

 

A couple of days ago, I was going through a purse that I haven’t used since we moved and came across a menu from Primavera, a vendor at the Ferry Building Farmers Market in San Francisco. I had the best chilaquiles I’ve ever had there last year, one sunny Saturday beside the bay. Looking down at the menu in my hand, I was first overwhelmed by a wave of home-sickening nostalgia and then by a craving for something spicy, something Mexican……salsa.  But I haven’t had the easiest time finding the kind of Mexican ingredients that were ubiquitous in California, like nopal and tomatillos and chiles and steamy-fresh tender corn tortillas and innumerable varieties of salsa. And then, it’s still Winter here, yes, the bare edge, but tomatoes still have the taste, fragrance, and texture of nerf balls, and I haven’t seen a fresh serrano in a grocery store in a long time.

So I went back to a recipe I’ve used for years, a salsa made with canned tomatoes, one of those “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” recipes; I also grabbed a few of the  serranos from our garden that we dried last year. This recipe makes a bright and flavorful, respectable, craving-satisfying, fresh tasting, tortilla chip-coating  salsa that also goes very nicely with pinto beans, on a taco, or can be used to gently steam/fry eggs for huevos rancheros.

 

Tomato Salsa

1 jalapeño

3 dried serranos

2 scallions

1/4 cup cilantro leaves (or not, if you’re a hater)

pinch Mexican oregano

about 1 teaspoon salt

1 large clove garlic

1- 14 ounce can diced tomatoes

 

 

Blacken and blister the jalapeño, either under the broiler or over the flame of a gas stove until every inch is charred. After letting it cool down, scrape as much of the skin off as you can without going crazy, this is no time to be fussy. De-seed and finely mince the jalapeño. Finely mince the serranos, scallions and garlic. I use a microplane grater for the garlic, which basically renders the garlic clove a paste. If you don’t loath cilantro, coarsely chop the leaves. Once all of the ingredients are prepared, mix them with the tomato. Add the salt and Mexican oregano (which has an earthier, less minty flavor than Italian or Greek oregano). I like to crumble the leaves between my fingers before adding it- it helps the herb incorporate more easily and makes my hands smell good.

 

 

Use either a blender, food processor, or immersion blender to just lightly crush the tomatoes and mix everything together well. I like a slightly chunky salsa, but blitz to your own personal preference. Although it is very respectable tasting immediately, the flavors will marry and improve with time, so try to save some for tomorrow.