Recipe: Mexican Pork Stew with Tomatillos

Pork Tomatillo Stew

Mexican pork stew with tomatillo

This is also called “chile verde”. The proportions are approximate and very forgiving as long as you have ample tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes) for texture and tartness. Serves 6 as a main dish, or more if used as taco or burrito filling.

Ingredients:
2 lb pork stew meat (shoulder is ideal) chopped into 1 inch cubes, along with any bones that come with the meat
Flour, salt and pepper for dredging
1 T olive or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 t cumin seed or 1/2 t ground cumin
1 t dried oregano
1/2 c chicken stock
2 lb tomatillos, chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped fine
1 green bell pepper (or equivalent amount of mild green chile), coarsely chopped
Additional salt to taste

Method: dredge the pork in flour which has been seasoned with salt and pepper and saute in oil in a large saucepan, turning frequently until all sides are crisp and brown. Remove to a plate; add onion and saute till translucent. Add oregano and cumin and fry briefly until aromatic. Return pork to pan and add chicken stock; cover and cook over very low heat 2 hours or longer until very tender. Cook the bones along with the meat; add water as needed when the dish becomes dry. Remove bones and scrape the meat off into the pot; add tomatillos and peppers and cook 1 more hour or until tomatillos are falling apart but still identifiable in the stew (I like to hold a few back and put them in toward the end). Taste and add salt if needed before serving. I like to serve it over rice with chopped onion, cilantro and chili and a slice of lime. The stew is better if reheated the next day.

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What to do with tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes)

Tomatillo kababs

Tomatillo kebabs

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican green tomatoes, are actually a relative of the gooseberry which grows fruit covered with a similar papery husk. But they behave very much like tomatoes in recipes while adding a tartness all their own. Another way they’re like tomatoes: last year’s crop will produce volunteer plants all over your garden, which is why I’ve been experimenting with the end of season gleanings over the past few weeks. Tomatillos are ready when they’re just beginning to yield to a squeeze instead of being hard as rocks. The husk is easy to remove (which you have to do before using) and keeps the fruit clean inside, even when they’ve spent a few days on the ground after most of the crop has been picked and the plants broken down.

My very favorite thing to do with tomatillos is to broil them on a skewer as part of a Middle Eastern-style mixed grill or shish kabab. Unlike tomatoes, they’ll stand up to high heat but then they wither appealingly on the plate for a flavor and taste counterpoint to the red or green peppers and sweet onions I also like to use. Tomatillos pair up well with pork in a Mexican chile verde stew, and I’d be willing to substitute then for tomatoes in most any savory slow-cooked dish. They’re firm when uncooked, but soon soften and break down just as tomatoes do.

And then of course there’s green salsa for chip-dipping and pouring on tacos and burritos. Diana Kennedy, my favorite Mexican cookbook author, has both cooked and uncooked green salsa recipes, each worth a try. I’ll be sharing some of these preps over the next few days, but grilled tomatillos on a skewer don’t need a recipe (other than letting them macerate a few minutes in the marinade you’ve used for other ingredients). Go ahead and make that tonight.

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Coping with climate change at Terra Firma Farm

Terra Firma Strawberries

The best tasting strawberries ever, picked a few minutes previous at Terra Firma Farm

If you grow vegetables in your garden and are never sure what you’re going to get, you can sympathize with the guys at Terra Firma Farm. They’re the grandpappy of California organic farms, started in the late 1980s on land which had been pesticide-free for 20 years before that. One of their first customers was Chez Panisse, and they were the first to make a CSA (community supported agriculture) delivery in San Francisco.

Pablito

Tour guide Pablito

And yet Terra Firma has to deal with unpredictability just like everyone else. It has barely rained in two years in Winters, CA where the farm is located, on the edge of the Central Valley between San Francisco and Sacramento. The water table has fallen from 50 to 80 feet during that time. Terra Firma is fortunate because 80% of its water comes from Putah Creek, a tributary of Lake Berryessa, a reservoir that does not connect to the larger state water system. But the declining water table might have been evidenced in a dying walnut grove just inside the main entrance.

kale inspector

Kale quality control inspector at work

We were there for the annual Farm Day, which welcomed friends who were mostly CSA members with a technical bent. Pablito, one of three partners, took us on a tour and explained where the vegetables and fruit come from. A recent success is the cross planting of cilantro rows among kale; the cilantro attracts a hover bee that lays its eggs in aphids, which attack the kale. But these measures work for a while, then stop working for unknown reasons.

The much dryer and warmer weather has created its own set of new problems. The Bagrada bug, a fast-reproducing stinkbug that recently emigrated from Africa, ruined 10% of the kale crop this fall. It thrives on warm, dry weather which is these days the only kind they currently have.

Double rainbow at Terra Firma Farm

We ended Farm Day with an auspicious double rainbow.

One flashpoint is the delicious strawberries: a CSA member asked why they are still growing these thirsty plants in light of the drought. The answer is that they’re the most popular crop along with tomatoes; in past years the CSA would lose 20% of its customers prior to the first tomato crop and they’ve ended that slide with strawberries. So economic reality trumps ecological concerns, at least this time.

I will tell you that these strawberries, gleaned at the peak of ripeness when they were far too tender to ship, were the sweetest and most delicious I have ever tasted. The endless rows of kale (we’re near San Francisco, remember) and ground crops like carrots and potatoes looked as fine and fat as they could be. The land is enriched with many generations of legumes which have been plowed under, organic compost from nearby wineries including the must of wine grapes, and the leavings of sheep who aerate the ground and chop up the ground cover while providing some delicious lamburger sliders. And yet farming here is a process of hope and discovery and keeping fingers crossed, much as it must have been for the ancient Babylonians.

Cherish your food. And for god’s sake, eat your vegetables.

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Recipe: Bacon Croutons

Bacon Croutons

Mmm… bacon croutons

Got a problem with that? The key is to use very dry cubes of bread so they become glazed with the oil rather than sopping it up. Dedicated to my college girlfriend Nerissa who used to feed me fried bread (she was from the UK).

Ingredients:
4 c bread cubes, approx. 3/4 inch square, very dry (let them sit on the counter for a couple of days, or dry in the oven at low heat)
2 T bacon grease
2 T olive oil
1 t granulated garlic, or 2 cloves very finely chopped fresh garlic

Method: heat the oils in a large skillet to medium but below the smoking point. If using fresh garlic, dump it in and saute briefly till it starts to release aroma. Add bread crumbs and toast 5 minutes, tossing frequently. If using granulated garlic add it now and toss to coat the cubes. Use within a day or two, or save up to a week in the refrigerator.

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Recipe: Salat Maloof (Egyptian Cole Slaw)

Egyptian Cole Slaw

Egyptian Cole Slaw

There were a lot of Egyptians in Dallas when I was growing up, and the technique for the garlic makes me think this might have been the inspiration for Vincent’s Garlic Slaw. It has a mild, refreshing taste that pairs nicely with Middle Eastern entrees–or, maybe some barbecue. Adapted from Middle Eastern Cooking – Foods Of The World. Serves 8.

Ingredients:
1 small head cabbage, coarsely chopped (about 4 c)
1 small clove garlic
½ t Kosher salt
¼ c lemon juice
¼ c olive oil
2 T fresh mint leaves, chiffonade, or 1 T dried mint, crumbled
¼ c pomegranate seeds

Method: finely chop the garlic and then mash it into the salt, using the side of the knife blade, till the mixture becomes a paste. Place in the bottom of a serving bowl, add lemon juice and olive oil and mix thoroughly. Add chopped cabbage and toss to mix. You can serve immediately, but it’s better if it sits an hour or so. Sprinkle shredded mint leaves and pomegranate seeds on top before serving.

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Recipe: Armenian Pilaf

Armenian pilaf in its cooking pot

Armenian pilaf in its cooking pot

The browned spaghetti adds a bit of texture and flavor to standard pilaf. My ex-wife learned this from her next door Armenian neighbor and I was surprised to find it’s a popular dish on the internet. Serves 8-10.

Ingredients:
½ c dried spaghetti, vermicelli, angel hair or other stick pasta, broken into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ T butter
1 ½ T olive oil
2 c basmanti or other long grain rice
1 c chopped onion
3 c chicken stock
1-2 t Kosher salt or to taste

Method: heat a dry saucepan to medium and add pasta; roast 5 minutes or so, tossing the pan frequently to turn pasta, until it starts to turn a golden brown. Do not let it burn. Remove the pasta to a plate and add butter and oil to the pan. Saute the onion till translucent then add rice and sauté a few minutes more. Add stock and 1 t salt and bring to boil; taste and add more salt if needed. Cover and simmer on very low heat 20 minutes, then turn off heat without peeking and rest 20 minutes. Fluff with a spoon before serving; rice should have completely absorbed all liquid.

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Recipe: Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh

I don’t like tabboulehs that are overbalanced toward starch or greens, or tabboulehs that are mild vs tart. This one nails the flavor balance. Adapted from Middle Eastern Cooking – Foods Of The World (I reduced their recommended salt by 50%). Serves 6-8.

Ingredients:
½ c bulgur wheat
Boiling water
1 c flat leaf parsley, stems removed, coarsely chopped
1 c onions, finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, cut chiffonade, or 1 T dried mint, crumbled (optional)
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/3 c lemon juice
1/3 c olive oil
1 t Kosher salt

Method: add bulgur to a mixing bowl and add about 2x its volume in boiling water. Soak 10 minutes or until it loses its crunch. Drain in a fine sieve and press out excess water with a paper towel. Add to serving bowl with all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Tastes better if it sits an hour before serving, but don’t keep it past the next day.


Due to the price and variability of fresh lemons these days, I have started using Lakewood Organic Lemon Juice in recipes calling for lemon juice. It tastes good and costs about the same as fresh, maybe less.

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Foods of the World: Middle Eastern Cooking

Foods of the World: Middle Eastern Cooking

My well-used copy of the Middle Eastern Cooking recipe guide

Some 40 years before Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem,
Time-Life Books introduced American home cooks to the wonders of Middle Eastern cuisine with its Middle Eastern Cooking – Foods Of The World. Some of the books in the series dumbed down the flavors and simplified the ingredients but this was the real deal, unapologetically endorsing calves’ feet, lamb’s liver, pomegranate juice and an otherwise conventional skewered swordfish recipe that includes 30 bay leaves.

I was lucky enough to have access to this book as a tyke, and it gave me one of my first cues that there was good food to be had beyond fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I recently acquired a well-used copy and have been discovering it anew. The preps in general are pretty straightforward, but the way the ingredients are combined creates some flavor excitement.

I’ll be sharing my take on a few of the recipes from time to time, but it’s worth springing for your own copy. There’s both a hardcover coffee table book and a spiral bound recipe guide. Normally I’d just recommend the latter (which I believe includes recipes not in the hardcover) but the context is important to some of the dishes so I’d say if you have to buy them separately get them both. Don’t pay for any condition higher than “acceptable” since you’re going to be spilling stuff on it.

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Recipe: Cheese Steak Sandwiches

Cheese Steak Sandwich on one of my Po' Boy rolls

Cheese Steak Sandwich on one of my Po’ Boy rolls

I use mustard which anyone from Philly will tell you is heresy. Fine; all the more for me. Makes 3 sandwiches.

Ingredients:
1 lb shaved steak*
1 medium onion, sliced
1/2 lb sliced mushrooms (optional)
Olive oil
Yellow mustard
Vinegar peppers (recommended, if you can get them) or pepperoncini, crushed pepper spread etc.
6 slices sharp or regular Provolone
3 8-inch Po’ Boy rolls or generic sub sandwich rolls

Method: Heat a generous spoonful of oil in a skillet; add onions and saute till limp; add optional mushrooms and saute till light brown; add shaved steak and saute, moving it around in the skillet, till it has lost any pink color. The meat will give off a lot of liquid; continue cooking 2-3 minutes to reduce it slightly.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees**. Slice each roll lengthwise and slather a generous amount of mustard on each side. Spoon on 1/3 of the steak/saute mixture and a couple spoonfuls of the cooking liquid. Add a good helping of peppers then finish with two slices of Provolone. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and bake 20 minutes or until cheese is melted. Eat right away.

shaved steak

Shaved Steak

* To make shaved steak, freeze a sirloin or other tender cut (or defrost a frozen steak) just to the consistency when you can cut it with a sharp knife. Shave into very thin slices. Don’t worry about the appearance of the slices since everything will melt together in the sandwich.

** If you have some hard, stale rolls you can actually heat the assembled sandwiches in the microwave and save 15 minutes. But fresh, tender rolls will yield an unsatisfactory, mushy result.

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Recipe: Po’ Boy Rolls

Po Boy Rolls

Po’ Boy Rolls (the third one in had an accident with its plastic cover during proofing)

These are a little softer and more compliant than most of my breads, which makes them good for po’ boys, subs, hoagies etc. Evolved from this thread on The Fresh Loaf which in turn attributes it to a succession of other people. It’s all good. Makes four 8 inch rolls.

Ingredients
375 g all purpose flour
50 g rice flour
1.5 t instant yeast
1 t salt (approximately 8 grams)
1 T sugar (approximately 15 grams)
1 T dried milk powder (approximately 10 grams)
300 g lukewarm water
2 t softened butter (approximately 10 g)

Method: place everything except the butter in a Kitchenaid/orbital mixer bowl and mix on low speed 2 minutes till thoroughly combined. Add butter and mix on second speed 8 minutes until dough is well developed but still sticky (it should barely clear the side of the bowl). Remove dough hook, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a pate and rise 90 minutes or until doubled.

Po Boy Dough

Proofing…

Turn the dough out on a floured board, divide into quarters, form into balls, cover and let rest 20 minutes. Shape each ball into a cylinder about 8 inches long and place on a silicon non-stick sheet in a half-sheet pan. Cover and proof at room temperature until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray the rolls generously with water and bake, with steam, 20 minutes. Turn the pan and lower heat to 375 degrees and cook another 20 minutes or until brown, but not dark.

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