Don Day doesn’t dance, unless he’s had a few drinks. Don Day doesn’t cook, no matter how many drinks he’s had. Because Don Day’s Wife doesn’t allow him to cook. In fact, Don Day is staunchly discouraged from ever entering the kitchen. Well that is until there are dishes…and especially when those dishes are covered with dried egg yolk.
So Don Day in SMA rarely shares recipes and, if I do, they are almost always Don Day’s Wife’s recipes. Or, most often, her tweaking of other chefs’ recipes.
But the focus of today’s blog post is a recipe. A recipe for something that, after the tortilla, may be the absolute most consumed item in Mexican restaurants and in Mexican homes. And it’s my recipe or, at least, my adaptation of a few other much more talented people’s recipes.
“As common as ketchup” my mother used to say and this dish is. In Mexico, it is found as frequently as that chubby bottle with the Heinz logo is north of the border. Though, thank goodness, you’ll rarely if ever see a store-bought version in a Mexican kitchen or restaurant.
I’m talking about salsa verde. Plain, ordinary, everyday green sauce. But with a twist.
Over the many years that I’ve been a part-time resident of Mexico, I’ve probably tasted a hundred salsas verdes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a single one I disliked but I’ve had some that I liked an awful lot more than others. I wondered why. So I did some research.
I found that virtually every one of the recipes I found in what’s left (after Don Day’s Wife’s “they go or I go” alternative) of my old-fashioned print library plus everything new-fashioned I could find online had pretty much the same ingredients in pretty much the same quantities.
Almost every recipe included tomatillos, either jalapeño or serrano peppers, onion, cilantro and salt. In quite a few recipes I also found garlic and, occasionally, lime juice.
The big difference though came in the preparation of the salsas; what happened to those ingredients before they were chopped and blended together. There were three common variations to the prep. The raw version, the boiled version, and the oven-cooked version.
The raw, I realized, was the one that has been my least favorite over the years. It’s the most tart, the most acidic, the most bitter.
The boiled version was the one I’d obviously had more of than any other salsa verde. The tomatillos and, sometimes, the chiles are cooked first in water on top of a stove, softening the flesh and mellowing the bitterness. It’s good but it’s not the best version of salsa verde.
The best is definitely the oven-roasted/broiled. It’s there that the full, rich flavors of the tomatillos are really brought out. As are the deep, intense flavors of the onions, chiles and garlic.
So why, I thought, aren’t oven-cooked salsas verdes more popular. Why did I only find four of about 40 recipes that roasted or broiled the tomatillos and why did only one of that four consider it almost essential for a great sauce (Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico)?
My theory is tradition, decades long tradition. Recipes are family heirlooms. They are passed from abuelas to nietas and on to their nietas. Ovens were never part of the Mexican cooking tradition. In early recipe books, you may not even find them mentioned. Three or four generations ago, very few Mexican homes even owned an oven. Roasting and baking were done in pits and people weren’t about to build a fire in a pit to roast a few tomatillos. Mexico prepared their salsas verdes over open fires, then on propane or electric stoves, so Mexico boiled their tomatillos.
If you boil your tomatillos for your salsa verde, I urge you to try roasting them along with the chiles, onions and garlic. It is so much better with chilaquiles, with chicken enchiladas, or on top of any taco.
Don Day’s very simple Salsa Verde (makes about two cups)
500 grams of tomatillos (about ten medium size) husked and rinsed to remove the sticky stuff.
1 jalapeño pepper. Seeded and deveined to keep the heat level down. My choice of a seeded jalapeño only wins over a serrano because Don Day’s Wife reminds me who (the grandkids) will be eating most of the salsa so feel free to substitute an unseeded serrano or two jalapeños if you can handle the heat,
1/2 of a sweet Vidalia onion.
1 garlic clove.
About 10 sprigs of Cilantro. I include the stems (because they disappear when chopped).
1/2 teaspoon of salt.
The juice of one key lime.
Place an oven rack about five inches from the top of the oven and preheat the oven to 230C (450F or gas level 8).
Cover a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (especially if you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it).
Place the tomatillos, peppers, onion and garlic on the sheet and it in the oven.
After five minutes, take out the baking sheet and turn everything over (tongs work best). The tomatillos should be just starting to brown but not charring.
Place the sheet back in the oven for another four minutes.
Place all ingredients, including the cilantro, salt and lime juice, plus any juices from the baking sheet, in a mini-chopper and pulse everything for a few seconds.
You want no big chunks but you don’t want it to all become a liquid either. If you didn’t give your spouse a mini chopper for their birthday (so much more practical than perfume), a food processor, traditional blender or immersion blender will work fine.
If you’re going to use the use the salsa verde for something like enchiladas, where you want the sauce to be quite runny, you may need to add a little water.
You’ll also find that any leftover sauce (it will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator) will thicken (tomatillos contain natural pectin) and may require some water added when you use it.
To make a creamy salsa verde, add an avocado when you blend.