Saturday, January 07, 2006

Chili Verde with Tomatoes?

Few accuse me of being a food purest. Claims of authenticity at ethnic restaurants (be it Italian, Hungarian or Mexican) don't move me.

My test is simple: Does the food taste good? Beyond taste, I don't really care where a dish came from or how authentic are its flavors.

So when I express alarm over Sunset's latest chili verde ("Dishes that define the West," Sunset, Northern California edition, pages 97-8), it's not because the recipe violates some long-standing culinary code.

It's because the test cooks used tomatoes (the red kind) as the foundational ingredient.

The caption to the photograph of Sunset's tomato-infused verde reads, "Cooks have long battled it out whether New Mexico, Arizona or Colorado has the 'true' version of the spicy simmered pork dish."

So, I guess I'm injecting myself into the battle.

I’m not sure how cooks make chili verde in New Mexico, Arizona or Colorado. We use tomatillos here in Northern California. Mexican restaurants that I frequent use tomatillos and green chilies in their verde. I've never had a tomato-infused verde at Casa Ramos or Colina de Oro (click for El Dorado Co. restaurants).

Sunset's approach baffles me. Although I love to mix flavors (when combinations make sense and the dish comes a live in my palate), I look to traditional flavors in some dishes. Chili verde is a prime example. I enjoy the lively flavors of the green pork stew.

This approach makes sense to me. After all, verde means green in Spanish. You use green ingredients, not the red tomatoes in the Sunset recipe, in chili verde. I though a red chili was called chili colorado!

I suppose I could learn to relish a green and red pork stew. But why try?

So add tomatoes if you must. You won't offend me. But I think you'll enjoy the traditional chili verde. It's a refreshing change from the thick, hearty red chili.

Many supermarkets stock canned tomatillos. You'll find them in the Mexican isle.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 pounds boned pork shoulder (Boston butt), fat-trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 onions (2 pounds total), cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges
5 large cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 (28-ounce) can canned whole tomatillos
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth
2 (7-ounce) cans whole green chilies, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves
2 bay leaves
Chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges

Heat vegetable oil in a 12-inch Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, lightly season cubed pork with salt and ground black pepper. When hot, add 1/3 the pork. Turn pieces as necessary until well browned on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes total. Transfer meat to a bowl. If pot is dry, add 1 tablespoon oil. Repeat process for next 2 batches to brown pieces on all sides.

Reduce heat to medium. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of leftover pork fat in Dutch oven. Add oil, if necessary, to bring the total to 2 tablespoons. Add onion, garlic and cumin. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 8 minutes.

Return meat and any accumulated juices to Dutch oven. Crush tomatillos with your hand and place in Dutch oven. Add broth, chilies, bay leaves and oregano to Dutch oven. Bring chili mixture to a simmer

Place lid on Dutch oven. Bake at 350 degrees (17 coals under oven and 8 on lid) until pork is very tender when pierced and flavors are blended, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Adjust seasoning. Serve topped with cilantro leaves. Garnish with lime to squeeze over chili. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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