Connie and Jaydene introduced me to the 1st Marlboro Country Cookbook, back in 1997, when I met them my junior year of college. The pages are bold blacks and reds, full color spreads of food on every frontier-themed page. Every few pages contains random removable inserts: postcards printed with chili recipes and posters of hot peppers. It’s full of hearty entrees, with a focus on several variations on the theme of chili, among other comfort foods. My oft-made Double Apple Cake is also from this book.
The image that first caught my attention was of a large cast iron skillet filled to the brim with a nearly coffee-colored chili brimming with chunks of steak and red and green pepper garnish. I hadn’t ever had a chili without beans, so this looked promising. But then I was interested in that strange word among the ingredients: tomatillo.
Pronounced [toh-MAH-tee-YO], this member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, is a cousin of the tomato. The first cultivators were the Aztec, whose name “miltomatl” means “round and plump with paper.” The tomatillo fruit, enclosed within a papery husk, is used when it is green; its refreshing, crisp, tart flavor is popular in Mexican sauces and salsas.
Tomatillos, which are rich in vitamins A and C, can either be eaten raw or briefly blanched in a pan until their skins burst, creating a smooth sauce to work with.*
*cribbed from various Google descriptions
I was surprised to find them in one of the two grocery stores in my small college town of Vermillion, SD. I remember cutting into my first tomatillo at the kitchen on Main Street, grinning at the weirdness of it: an onion skin-wrapped green tomato that looked closer to a hot pepper when one cut into it, rows of tiny seeds scattered in a dense flesh almost the color and texture of an unripe honeydew. I expected their flavor to be spicy, but they were tart, nearly lemony, and when they were melted into a stew with beef, tomatoes, and peppers, the flavor became a savory pinnace that made the idea of red tomatoes in chili seem almost bland. I recall Jaydene’s husband Bob murmuring his approvals between spoonfuls.
During a making of chili in the winter of 2000, I shared a bowl with Rebecca, whom I’d met that year. She caught my tomatillo fever and promptly planted some that summer. I think there may have been two plants, but I certainly recall the enormous tall leafy plant that threatened to take over her walkway, producing hundreds of fruits, surprisingly, in SD’s climate. We quickly got to work making tomatillo catsup and a tomatillo salsa. The catsup, while delicious, was a pain in the neck to process, and the salsa, which had the virtue of a chunky texture to complement the piquancy of the tomatillos, is still to date, the best salsa I’ve ever tasted.
I made Cyclone Chili again last night for today’s Election Day Chili potluck lunch at work. I was joined by Pascha, who made a wonderfully dark black bean chili, complex with spices, herbs, and dark beer. Everyone else brought the traditional extras: cornbread, crackers, sour cream, cheese. There was an incredible spiced cider, guacamole and chips, apple slices with caramel, and pies. It was the first time I’d seen most of my coworkers bunched together and fully using the seats in the lunchroom, and all the scents and bustling around, surrounded by the office windows darkened with Seattle fall, was a comforting welcome to Thanksgiving season.
This recipe is a tradition, a recipe I always return to, always served with a catalogue of images as I prepare it, remembrances of all the good people with whom I’ve shared it.
The following recipe is for 4 to 5 people, though last night I doubled it and just kept the Jalapenos at 6 to keep the heat down. Typically I’ll include a few seeds to raise the heat, which makes a cool dollop of sour cream essential to cool it down.
2 lbs. beef chuck, cut into ½ in. cubes
2-4 T. olive oil
4-6 fresh Jalapeno peppers
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ sweet green pepper, chopped
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1 ½ c. beef broth
3 T. chopped fresh cilantro
1 T. paprika
2 t. crushed cumin seeds
½-1 t. salt
¼ t. black pepper
Brown beef in hot oil in a large heavy kettle. Dice Jalapenos, discarding seeds or membrane and add to beef with onion, garlic, and green pepper.
Husk tomatillos, wash, and chop. There should be about 1 ½ cups; add to beef mixture. Add tomato sauce, broth, cilantro, paprika, cumin, and seasonings; bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer for about 2 hours, or until beef is very tender.
Today I read some blogs that suggested replacing tomato pizza sauce with tomatillo sauce for a more intriguing take on the ubiquitous pineapple-and-ham Hawaiian pizza, or for a different take on a burrito-styled chicken pizza. Do you have any ideas of vegetable toppings you think might be interesting? Let me know.