The Fat of the Land

Month: September, 2015

Lime-a-tillo

IMG_8812

Anywhere outside of Central America the tomatillo is little more than an afterthought—something we have come to know through globalism and restaurants brave enough to affront our rutted palates with the unfamiliar. Even its diminutive name, meaning ‘little tomato,’ suggests it came second, though most archeologists believe the tomatillo was cultivated by ancient Mesoamericans long before its world-famous cousin.

Roughly the size of a cherry tomato, cloaked in an attractive, lantern-shaped husk, the tomatillo looks almost like a tomato, though hold a tomatillo in one hand and a cherry tomato of the same size in the other, and you will begin to feel the difference. With drier flesh, the buoyant tomatillo seems less substantial. Take a bite of each. Unlike a tomato, whose juices ooze with concentrated flavor compounds and sugars, a raw tomatillo comes off as overly lean—bitter acidity and merely a hint of sweetness.

Cook that same tomatillo in a small amount of water or on the grill and its sharpness mellows, cell walls bursting open, releasing pectin that thickens the tartly sweet juices into syrup. The tomatillo, parading as simple and slight, creates its own luscious sauce with only the application of heat. Its vegetal, citrus-infused flavor cuts through lipids like a cool breeze on an August afternoon, explaining the tomatillo’s common association with fatty taco fillings or buttery guacamole.

That the raw tomatillo seems to the tongue like a lime in a poorly executed tomato costume is no coincidence. Lime flavor is dominated by acidic compounds, which occur mostly as citric acid, with ten-percent dashes of malic (from the Latin word for apple; associated with tart things like rhubarb and sour candies) and succinic acids, both of which add to the fruit’s complexity (and are nearly absent in lemons). Tomatillo acidity is primarily citric and malic, a combination that lends its flavor that lime-without-the-peel quality; lime flavor, in its fullness, is a cocktail of acidity, sugar, and aromatic compounds released from the skin.

In traditional Mayan and Aztec cuisines, tomatillos played the role of a pre-Columbian citrus. It’s hard to imagine a plate of Mexican food without that quintessential slice of lime, but citrus trees hail from Asia and did not reach Central America until the 16th Century. The acidic resonance between tomatillos, a long-time staple, and limes, introduced (along with other citrus varieties) by Spanish conquistadors, may explain why these cuisines took to limes much more so than lemons—it was familiar; they already knew what to do with it.

One pre-Columbian use of the tomatillo was to tenderize meat. Stewed with chiles and perhaps a handful of quelites (wild greens, such as purslane or amaranth leaves), tomatillo acidity softened lean cuts the way citrus juice will. Remnants of this technique are evident in dishes like Chile Verde (pork braised in green salsa). Tomatillos perform similar to (and likely predate the use of) lime juice in various salsas, invigorating avocado’s heaviness in a well-balanced guacamole, or kicking up the acidity of chile- and tomato-based salsas.

Although the temptation to toss tomatillo husks out the back door to tumble around the yard like balls of lace must have been irresistible even to the Mayans and Aztecs, their most enterprising cooks discovered arguably better uses. It turns out, for reasons I could not find a definitive explanation of, tomatillo husks contain a leavening agent. Used to improve breads and tamale dough, water boiled with ten or so tomatillo husks somehow imparts masa with a fluffy lightness the way baking soda does in modern recipes. Many sources attribute this to the husk’s acidity. Since the water-husk infusions often (but, tellingly, not always) cite the inclusion of a particular kind of alkaline mineral salt called tequesquite, the basic idea is that the salt and the husk react something like baking soda and vinegar.

In an interesting exchange I found between a Mexican food blogger and the scientist-author Harold McGee, McGee explains that the chemistry of this theory doesn’t pan out. Prepared as an infusion, the gas release that results from the contact between the alkali and the acid would occur during the boiling process, meaning that the fluff-producing magic would extinguish long before it is added to the masa. McGee postulates instead that the leavening could be the result of pectin and other thickening agents; released from rigid cell walls by boiling (with or without the alkaline salt), they might lend enough elasticity to the dense dough to allow air bubbles to expand during cooking.

With no more than a high school chemistry course under my belt, I have nothing to add, except another comment I came across a few times on unrelated sites. Though I hesitate to call it a “tradition” without further evidence, it appears that several Mexican grandmothers have been known to boil tomatillo husks with cactus paddles in order to reduce the paddles’ slime (something akin to okra’s). Sounds like magic, but maybe the slime isn’t disappearing, just thickening, in which case, Harold might be on to something.

So the next time you take home those ‘little tomatoes,’ don’t think tomato at all. Think lime and lightness and silky rich sauce, maybe even husk and all.

Advertisements

Holy Trinity

holy trinity

When summer turns down the heat, when it can no longer cloak the edge of winter with its sweet, delicate fruit and easy freshness, we must remember again how to cook. Not that we haven’t cooked all summer—there have been sautés, fresh sauces, crowded grills—but the flavors have stayed so available, so forthright, we haven’t needed to add much more than salty cheese, a dousing of vinaigrette, a sear on the grill.

End-of-summer produce is a sultry lot; what was bursting with readiness is now reserved, its proteins and sugars turned meaty or starched in a way that implores the coaxing of a low flame. Our kitchens, too, are suddenly more habitable, their corners cooled by night’s deeper chill, asking, finally, for the symphonic perfume that comes from roasting. It seems right, this pair: a ready kitchen, vegetables seeking warmth.

What you can draw from one gently cooked vegetable—say a tomato, thick slices roasted into candy—expands exponentially when you combine it with a companion or two. These trinities (sometimes duos or quartets) live at the heart of almost every cuisine. They make the stitch between cooking and culture.

Take sofrito, paella’s backbone and the base of many Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American soups, stews, and rice dishes. Cajun and Creole cooks call their sofrito the Holy Trinity, a trio of onion, celery, and green pepper finely diced and cooked until they sit in their own luscious sauce, ready for the next layer.

They go by different names, but all of these trinities are holy in their own rite, balancing sour and sweet, aroma and spice in a way that may best be summed up by the Italian word agrodulce. A mix of agro (sour) and dulce (sweet), agrodulce, at its most basic, is a sauce made of vinegar and sugar. But it also runs through a sofrito, where the acidity of a tomato meets the sweetness of roasted garlic, onion, and red pepper. Add zucchini and eggplant and you have ratatouille. Take away all but the tomato and onion, add ginger and coriander, and you have an Indian chutney. Give that chutney a couple spoonfulls of peanut butter instead of coriander, and you are on your way to Tongolese azi dessi.

Some trinities are strongly aromatic, such as German suppengrun (literally, “soup greens”), where carrots and leeks lend their earthy sugars to celeriac’s musk; or the French mirepoix—onion, carrot, and celery—offering the root vegetables’ subtle dulce a clean, cutting bitterness in lieu of overt acidity. Italian soffritto is more like mirepoix than its Spanish counterpart, starting with the same onion-carrot-celery base and adorning it with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, or cured meats. Szechuan cuisine’s holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and chile peppers marries sour and sweet with spice, as does the simplest Mexican rajas—strips of poblano peppers and onions slowly cooked in oil until supple and melded.

This kind of submission is what makes a trinity holy—the melting away of individual identity to become something if not greater, than at least unmistakably different than the sum of its parts. It is a way of cooking that does more than pair compatible flavors; it transforms them. But don’t go looking for texture, don’t expect crust or crunch. A good holy trinity is about softness, about giving up.

And so it is with end of summer vegetables; after months of freshness, I yearn for something deeper, something willing to fade into the background. This year, my trinity of choice is eggplant, tomato, and onion. I stew them slowly in a Dutch oven on the lowest heat, salted judiciously, oregano or thyme for character, a pinch of sugar and a dash of white wine for body. And because it is the last chance (or nearly so) for many other delicious things, from that rich, silky base I build.

Perhaps I’ll strip an ear of late season corn, its sugar becoming starch, adding creamy thickness and a pleasing pop to the stew’s texture. I throw in peppers, sweet or hot, for their meaty softness; Romano or green beans, less tender now than a month ago, which hold their shape after an hour’s simmer, absorbing the sauce and giving back supple firmness, something to chew on. Maybe I’ll cube that zucchini, a little spongy in the center, all the better now to absorb, to give.

You can keep going, adding what you like. Give it a grilled fish, a plate of pasta, a mound of polenta. Dip flatbread in it. Smother it with cheese. Bake it under a blanket of oiled breadcrumbs. Spread it on a sandwich with salami, a sausage. Make a crazy pizza topping out of it. Try it on ice cream. It doesn’t matter, because it takes its perfection with it. You’ve made something whole and, dolloped here, spread there, it stays that way.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eggplant Sauce

(adapted from Plenty)

With the addition of onion, softened just before the eggplant, this is the basic sauce I can’t get enough of right now. I cook it longer than the recipe suggests, about forty minutes on a low flame for complete melding.

Serves 4

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)

6 1/2 tbsp water

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chopped oregano (or 1 tsp dried)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir with the eggplant, cooking 2 minutes. Then add the wine and cook another minute more.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar, and oregano and cook for an additional 10 or more minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce.

4. Serve on its own as a side dish, with pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan, or over a bed of soft polenta (feta–stirred into the polenta or crumbled on top of the sauce–makes a great addition).