9.25.09 Tomatillos = Little Green Tomatoes?

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photo 2 by george billard
The answer is no, Einstein. Tomatillos are actually part of the nightshade family, related to the gooseberry. This all becomes clear once you focus on the papery husk. I've heard the ripe fruit can be yellow or even purple, but I've only ever seen them this clear green color. They are sweet-tart with a bright citrusy taste. We grew two enormous bushes this summer that towered over everything in the vegetable garden, attracted industrious armies of bees, resisted the ceaseless downpour (or maybe thrived on it?) and produced vast quantities of perfect tomatillos just smaller than a golfball. What then to do with all this bounty?
My mother (R.I.P.) was Chicana, and her family had roots in New Mexico, so we grew up eating a lot of Mexican food: fried tacos, quesadillas, chiles rellenos, enchiladas, tamales. My grandmother Eunice Chávez (R.I.P.) taught me to make the delicious red sauce from California red chiles that is a staple of this cooking but I don't recall eating many dishes with tomatillos. They are easy to cook with and can be chopped raw for salsa or pickled (which I have done to middling success), although I think my favorite use is as a sauce for these chicken enchiladas.

Green Chicken Enchiladas

serves 6 (without leftovers)
  • — 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • — 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • — 2 jalapeno or serrano chilies, seeded and chopped
  • — 1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
  • — 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • — 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • — 1 teaspoon groud cumin
  • — 2 teaspoons salt
  • — 2 1/2 pounds tomatillos, halved
  • — 1 cup green pumpkin seeds (pepitas), optional (this makes for a chunkier, slightly richer sauce)
  • — 3 cups good quality chicken stock, or water
  • — 3 cups shredded chicken (I like using a whole roasted bird but poached breasts or thighs are OK, too)
  • — 1 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese
  • — 12 corn tortillas (the freshest you can find)
  • — 3/4 cup Mexican queso fresco, crumbled (a mild feta works if you can't find this)

For the sauce:

In a large stockpot, heat oil over high heat and sautee garlic, onion, chilies, cilantro, salt and spices until soft and golden. Add tomatillos and pepitas, if using, and stir, then pour in chicken stock or water to cover. Reduce heat and simmer until falling apart, about 15-20 minutes.

Once it has cooled slightly, puree the tomatillo mixture in a blender or food processor, in batches if necessary. Then return to the pot and simmer to reduce to a slightly thicker consistency.

For the enchiladas:

Tradition calls for briefly frying the tortillas in oil before dipping them in the sauce but, in the interest of saving calories and avoiding the incredible mess this makes, I skip that step and have never heard any complaints.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Transfer the the sauce to a wide, flat sautee pan and keep it on low heat.

Spread a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a large casserole dish (you will make and bake the enchiladas in this).

Now, take a tortilla and place it in the sautee pan of sauce. Use tongs to submerge it, and maybe flip it once. The longer you leave it in the sauce, the softer it will get and the quicker to break apart, so work quickly. Remove the tortilla and lay it flat on a plate.

Place a thin line of chicken and a large pinch of jack cheese on the tortilla and roll it up as tightly as possible. Then place it seam side down in the casserole. (Your hands will become very messy and you will need to wipe them off periodically.) Repeat with the remaining tortillas, chicken and jack cheese. You should fit the enchiladas together very snugly in the pan.

Pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas—it should be abundant but they should not be swimming in it—and sprinkle the queso fresco on top.

Bake until bubbling and the cheese is melted, about 30 minutes. I recommend reheating any leftovers (and these are divine the next day) covered with foil; uncover for a few minutes at the end.

I like to serve these enchiladas with refried beans and a salad of avocado and jícama dressed with lime juice and salt. ¡Buen provecho!

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I grew both the purple and yellow varieties in my garden this past summer and also got green one's from our CSA. Made lots of fresh salsa and used them in my Autumn Pozole (a recipe I made up and uses fresh NW Salmon since we don't eat meat). Next summer I'll try out your recipe (sans chicken). Thanks! PS> My partner Jeff also grew up in New Mexico and dearly misses real soapapeas!
Suzinn on January 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm — Reply
Assuming you mean sopaipillas? Maybe I can dredge up my grandmother's recipe...
laura on January 3, 2010 at 3:30 am — Reply
Yes, thanks (even google didn't catch that spelling). Would love to find a recipe tho don't you have to deep fry them? Enjoy your Fast.
suzinn on January 3, 2010 at 12:22 pm — Reply
Oh, deep frying's not so bad. If you do it right, your food should hardly absorb any oil. I'm more concerned about all that white flour...
laura on January 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm — Reply
Cumin and coriander! I think I'll add that to my next batch of enchiladas.
nakedbeet on May 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm — Reply