One tomatillo at a time

by Chef Boy Ari

At dawn last Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to the rain. From my warm, fuzzy vantage, the rain sounded peaceful on the thirsty earth. But I was thinking about my cold and wet farmer friends setting up their market stalls, shivering over produce that nobody might show up to buy. But it isn’t the truth.

The truth is, people still show up, even in the rain. If farmers can work in the rain, people can shop, mingle and gossip in the rain, and they do. Face to face, grower and eater exchange words, produce and cash, a dance that’s almost as old as humanity itself.

I identify with farmers, in a wannabe sort of way. I regret not being one, sort of. Maybe it’s because I long for a sense of importance, and farmers are important. Anyone who disagrees can try going without food. Writers, on the other hand, are expendable. With notebook and empty bag, I went to the farmers market. I acquired food, learned who got frosted, who got pregnant, and who grew more of something than they know what to do with.

My mission of the day was peppers, as many as possible, especially the hot, the sweet and the fleshy. It’s pepper-pickling season, and my eyes were so focused on my hunt for capsicum that I barely noticed a flying bag of tomatillos, just in time to catch it.

“See if you can do anything with them,” hollered farmer Steve, his hair rain-plastered against his brow. “Nobody else wants to.”

Close relatives of tomatoes, tomatillos are green when ripe, and they come individually wrapped in thin, baggy shells that look like paper lanterns. They have a sour taste that might make you frown when you eat one raw. Mixed with tomatoes, onions, peppers, lime and cilantro, they make a great green addition to fresh salsa. Cut into slices and sprinkled with oil and salt, tomatillos make wonderful chips in the dehydrator.

Though there is much you can do with tomatillos, the essential obstacle to enjoying them is that they’re obscure enough to get left behind at the peak of harvest season, when everything else is ripe and beautiful. We might like tomatillos, but not as much as we like corn, or melons, or apples, or peppers, or greens. When most of us look forward to summer, it isn’t for the tomatillos. Farmers like Steve forget this when they plant tomatillos in spring, and he’s not the only one.

Towards the end of market, another farmer friend was cruising the meat vendor stalls, hoping to trade his unsold veggies for meat. Many of the flesh hawkers looked at him blankly, as if he were crazy to suggest eating something that wasn’t meat, much less a tomatillo, whatever that is.

“We didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables,” said one vendor. “Yeah, okay,” said my friend. “See you in the emergency room.”

“Nope,” said the vendor. “I’m gonna go like that,” he snapped his fingers. “No E.R. for me.”

“Yeah,” said my friend. “You’ll probably be running for a bus and,” clutching his heart, “bam!”

“You won’t see me running anywhere,” said the meat man. This interaction was impressive in its speedy wit, yet it was a pity to see fellow food producers failing to find common ground. They are a noble breed, and they need all the help and support they can get – including from each other.

I walked around the market a little sad, a little soggy, vaguely aware that I wanted to help save the universe.

I bought some pork shoulder and took it home with Steve’s flying sack of tomatillos. At home I hit the Internet in search of a certain dish I had in mind, chile verde, a Mexican stew of pork simmered in chile peppers and tomatillos. I chose a recipe from that got five out of five stars in 39 out of 39 reviews. I followed the recipe closely, but instead of using bell peppers as called for, I went with hot chiles.

To serve five people, brown 1.5 pounds of cubed pork meat (untrimmed) in a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Remove the pork, add an onion and 2 to 4 cloves garlic, all chopped. When the onions are tender, season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and a teaspoon of cumin. Then return the browned pork and a quart of chicken broth. Simmer for 1/2 hour.

Stir in two chopped poblano peppers, two chopped jalapeños, and a chopped bell pepper (or more chopped chiles—the more, and the more diverse, the better!). In a blender, puree 3/4 pound tomatillos and half a bunch of cilantro. Add this puree to the pot and cook it for another 30 to 45 minutes on medium heat. Season and serve. Traditionally, chile verde is served with tortillas, rice and beans.

The juices of the tomatillo unlocked the fat and muscle of the meat. It was spicy, savory, and falling-apart-tender proof that we can save the world by eating it. •



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