Monday, June 5, 2017

Salsa Verde

Summer is here and I'm overdue for some inspiration. By the time March rolls around, we have become bored with stews and soup. Since the weather started warming up, my culinary thoughts have turned to the bright and fresh flavors of seasonal produce. It's grilling season once again and I have banished my slow cooker to oblivion for the summer.

I haven't done anything new or experimental in the kitchen for months. Sure, I cook all the time, but I have not been pushing the boundaries. With a favorable forecast for the weekend, I was planning to grill some chicken and whatever early local produce I could find. The farmers markets have opened and on the way home from work on Friday, we went in search of the first pickings. I found some good looking local zucchini and my menu plans began to develop. I settled on grilled chicken thighs with zucchini, onions and some fresh asparagus I found at the grocery store. I decided to bathe the chicken and zucchini in salsa verde after it came off the grill.

Salsa verde just means green sauce and many different cultures have their own versions. The Italian salsa verde is parsley, garlic, anchovies, capers, onions, olive oil and vinegar. French sauce verte is more of a mayonnaise sauce flavored with tarragon and lemon. The German version features fresh herbs, sour cream, oil, vinegar and hard boiled eggs. In Argentina, they call their parsley, vinegar, garlic and red pepper flakes "chimichurri". In Indian cuisine, there is a green sauce made from mint, coriander and ginger. But the salsa verde I was after is the Mexican version made from tomatillos. If you've never seen a tomatillo before, imagine a green tomato with a paper husk. In fact, the tomatillo is a cousin of the tomato - both are members of the nightshade family. The tomatillo is an ancient fruit that was cultivated by Mayans and Aztecs and it is a staple of Mexican cuisine. They have become more accessible in recent years and chances are good that you can find them in your local grocery store.

I have never made salsa verde before, but it's one of my absolute favorites. Tomatillos have a tart flavor and fleshy texture and this style of salsa works really well with chicken and vegetables. When I make chicken enchiladas at home, I always use salsa verde, but I usually just buy a good quality jarred salsa. This time, I was charting some new territory and I was excited to give it a try. I bought six large tomatillos and two big poblano peppers. I've seen this sauce being made before and it can be prepared with fresh ingredients then cooked afterwards or it can start with cooked ingredients that get blended together. Since my plan was to grill, I decided to grill the ingredients to give it a lovely smokey flavor. But you know the old saying about the best laid plans, about an hour before I wanted to start the grill, ominous rain clouds started swirling in the sky and out of nowhere, thunderstorms appeared. My entire menu changed when I realized that grilling in the pouring rain was not an option. Oh well, plan B emerged and included steamed asparagus, roasted zucchini and pan-fried chicken. My green sauce would just have to be made indoors.

I started by turning the broiler on and moving the oven rack to the top. I cut a sweet onion in half and bathed it along with the poblano peppers in a light coating of olive oil, then put them on a sheet pan. Because grilling was out of the question, I figured broiling the peppers and onions would be the next best thing. The peppers need to be charred completely and moderately soft, which released the skin and makes them much easier to clean. While the broiler was heating up, I put the tomatillos in a shallow pan of water and put it over medium heat. Then I put the pan of peppers and onions in the oven. It took about 15 minutes for everything to cook and I turned and rotated the peppers and onions while they cooked to ensure they were charred on all sides. The tomatillos were soft, but not falling apart, so I moved them off the heat. The onions were slightly charred and mostly soft. The peppers were completely charred on all sides - I put them in a deep glass bowl and covered it tightly with plastic wrap. This encouraged the peppers to steam, which helps release the skin and allows it to peel right off.  I let everything cool for about half an hour to make it easier to handle.

With all the ingredients cooked and cooled, it was time to actually make this salsa verde. I cleaned the poblanos by peeling off the charred shin, opening up the pepper and rinsing out all the seeds. I put everything into the blender and turned my attention to seasoning. Now, most of the recipes I've seen for salsa verde include cilantro. I love cilantro, but my husband does not. In fact, there is an enzyme in the saliva of certain people that reacts with the cilantro and makes it taste like soap. You will never find cilantro in my kitchen, so my salsa had no herbs. Typically when I make tomato salsa, I like the classic Mexican flavors of chili powder and cumin, so I added a dash of each. I also like my salsa on the tart side and usually use the juice of one whole lime. Since the tomatillos have a naturally tart flavor, I only used half a lime and I added a generous pinch of salt and a healthy grinding of black pepper. When it comes to black pepper, always grind your own. The essential oils in peppercorns, which is where all the flavor comes from, tend to dissipate pretty quickly. If you buy pre-ground pepper, not only has it lost a lot of its flavor, but you also have no idea what's in it. It could be full of pencil shavings for all you know.  Buy whole peppercorns and grind it yourself for the absolute best flavor.

After blending, I adjusted the seasoning with a little extra salt and lime and I opened a bag of corn chips to see how this salsa tasted in an applied setting. It had a balanced flavor and a little bit of heat from the poblano peppers. Poblanos can be spicy or mild and you can't really tell how spicy they will be when you're buying them. If you are sensitive to heat, here's a tip that will work for any pepper. Cut off the stem end of the pepper and touch your tongue to the white pith. The heat of the pepper lives in its seeds and membranes. If the pepper is really hot, you'll know it right away. If you want a milder salsa, remove all the seeds and white pith and only use half. I served this salsa to my husband with a few chips before I started cooking dinner.  He gave it a thumbs up. It was absolutely yummy spooned over the zucchini and chicken, but this salsa is good on everything from tacos to pulled pork. Making your own salsa is easier than you think and much less expensive. Give it a try.

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