Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, Part III: Salsa Verde (Green Sauce)
Friends, it has become time to tell you about one of the most vibrant, fragrant, tasty yet sadly overlooked components of Mexican cuisine: Salsa Verde!
Salsa Verde – the great, often unsung, hero of Mexican cuisine. Photo credit: Malou Rotvel Pagh, Klidmoster.dk
What is Salsa Verde? Salsa Verde, literally green sauce, is a term used to describe a number of green sauces used in various European cuisines including Italian, French and Spanish and then, of course, in Mexican cuisine. And with this being the Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, we are – of course – going to focus on the authentic Mexican Salsa Verde, which also just happens to be the most unusual yet fragrant, flavorful and exciting kid in the Salsa Verde family.
Mexican Salsa Verde stands out, you see. Where continental Salsa Verdes usually owe their green color to a more or less intricate combination of herbs, Mexican Salsa Verde differs from many of its namesake sauces in that it is primarily made from a combination of tomatillos and green chilies. This refreshingly different combination gives Mexican Salsa Verde a unique, lightly spicy, deeply tangy, refreshing and salty flavor profile. It’s a flavor profile unlike any other traditional salsa, but also a signature flavor profile that goes incredibly well with authentic and traditional Mexican dishes, it should be added. How so? Well, look at Salsa Verde as the great equalizer: It adds acidity and twang to the oft-times heavy traditional Mexican dishes as well as a refreshing, cooling breath of air to dilute the chili fire that often burns strong and brightly in traditional Mexican cuisine.
So, what makes Mexican Salsa Verde so incredibly special, and how do we make some? To answer these questions, we must first address the burning question on some reader’s mind: what on earth is a tomatillo?
Tomatillos: What are they?
A tomatillo, also known as a Mexican husk tomato is a bright green, sometimes yellowish or even purple husk-covered fruit native to Mexico. Many culinary observers refer to a tomatillo as a green tomato, but erroneously so; no matter the amount of patience exerted, a tomatillo will not ripen into a beautiful, red tomato. It remains a greenish husk-covered Ugly Duckling of a fruit even when completely ripe for picking – and with good reason. Despite the resemblance in name and despite also answering to the Spanish name Tomato Verde (green tomato), a tomatillo is, in fact, not a green tomato. It’s not even a tomato! It’s actually more of an estranged cousin of the tomato.
Behold: The tomatillo – what a peculiar but absolutely spectacular little fruit. Photo credit: Malou Rotvel Pagh, Klidmoster.dk
Tomatillos, like tomatoes, belong to the Nightshade family, but the tomatillo itself is actually much more closely related to the Cape Gooseberry than the tomato. Compared to tomatoes, it has a unique tart and less sweet flavor that cannot be substituted by regular tomatoes and it is exactly this unique flavor coupled with its bright green appearance that lends character and bite to Mexican green sauces.
While relatively humble and uncommon today when compared to the massive popularity of the tomato, the cultural significance of the tomatillo is as massive as the plant is ancient. Fossils of wild tomatillo plants have been found to date back as far as 52 million years B.C., but on a slightly more recent note, tomatillos have played an exceedingly important role in Mesoamerican cultures and cuisine over the past 1,000 or so years:
Tomatillos were domesticated in Mexico long before the arrival of Europeans and have for centuries been an important part of Mayan and Aztec culinary culture. Much more so than its now more common and popular yet less exciting cousin, the tomato. As a result, tomatillo-based Salsa Verde may well have a much more significant impact on Mexican culinary culture than the much more widely known and respected tomato-based salsas like Salsa Roja. And this, of course, makes Salsa Verde a mandatory (and delicious) part of our Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food.
Got it? Good, so now that we know what tomatillos are, all we have to do is get ourselves a hold of some of them there tomatillos… And, uh, here’s where you may face a bit of a challenge.
How to get a hold of tomatillos
If you happen to live in a warm climate within a town with a sizable Hispanic population, you’re probably in luck. Hit up your local Mexican Market and you should be covered on your tomatillo needs. If not, just ask around, they may be able to procure some from within the community and hook you up. If a local Mexican Market is a luxury, you can only dream about, then cross your fingers try your closest ethnic market, green grocer or Farmer’s Market, in that particular order and simply pray for the best. Again, ask around, they may be able to hook you up. Tomatillos are not the easiest fruits to find, but they do have their devoted fans who will go to great lengths to source them for you.
If all else fails. In the end, you may have to turn to our trusty old friend, the Great World Wide Web for help. You can find tomatillos online, easily. Just bear in mind that, eventually, this may include having to settle for canned tomatillos! *insert gasping sound here*
Can I use canned tomatillos in Salsa Verde?
If you ask Google, the answer is prompt and clear: No! You can’t. The purists of the Internet agree that canned tomatillos make for an inferior Salsa Verde… And, uhh…
As a purist, I am, of course, inclined to agree. But here’s the thing, friends, as I have already mentioned, I live in a country where the growing season for tomatoes and similar vegetables is a whopping, notorious five minutes long (give or take!), which means that in certain years sun-ripened tomatoes is a privilege we simply do not get to enjoy – and the same goes, of course, for more exotic species such as tomatillos!
So, what can we do? Well, according to the Internet, we simply can’t make Salsa Verde. But for once, Internet, I beg to disagree! You see, if given the choice, I’ll take having to stomach canned tomatillos over not having the luxury of homemade Salsa Verde any day. I will argue, even, that despite a less than pretty appearance and a very light canned taste, canned tomatillos can make a pretty decent Salsa Verde. Unlike canned Salsa Verdes which are usually full of preservatives, flavor enhancers and other chemical magic, canned tomatillos are pretty much just heat treated tomatillos with a bit of citric acid thrown in.
If only we play our cards right and use top quality ingredients, the canned taste will drown beautifully in the zesty sea of flavors our Salsa Verde will provide.
Believe it or not, given the right recipe, canned tomatillos do actually a spectacular Salsa Verde make! Photo credit: Malou Rotvel Pagh, Klidmoster.dk
That being said, though, if you do have access to fresh, ripe tomatillos. Use them. By all means. It will only make your homemade Salsa Verde even better.
With that out of the way, you will be happy to know, though, that once you’ve safely secured a bunch of tomatillos, whether canned or fresh, your troubles are over. The only other things you need are cilantro, onions, garlic, lime juice, and the largely optional mild, green chilies to taste. I like mild, green New Mexico chilies myself, or green Jalapeños for a little extra kick. If you want more heat, consider Serranos for the job. Or simply leave out the hot peppers altogether. The choice is yours. And speaking of choices, you have but one more to make: How do you prefer your Salsa Verde?
Variety is the Spice of Life: Types of Salsa Verde
While the ingredient list of Salsa Verde is simpler than most other Mexican sauces, save maybe Guacamole, we’ve still got some important choices to make as far as preparation goes. Like our hot cousin Salsa Roja from Part 1 of the Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, Salsa Verde comes in a variety of forms, each sporting their own unique flavor profile:
- Raw sauce: in which the ingredients, quiet obviously, are left raw and merely ground together to taste.
- Cooked sauce: in which the ingredients are boiled to take the raw edge off them before being blended to smooth, velvety perfection.
- Roasted sauce: in which the main ingredients are roasted in a cast iron skillet before being ground into a slightly roasty, very lightly smoky sauce.
Which variety should you pick? It’s entirely up to you, of course, but I personally prefer the raw variety simply because it offers the clearest, crispest flavors coupled with a wildly tangy lash from the tomatillos, a herbaceous kick from the cilantro, a bite of fresh onion coupled with an underlying grassiness and a hint of sweetness and heat. So that is the version we’ll be rolling with for this recipe.
A cooked sauce will offer a more mellow, wholesome flavor profile that is rounder but less intense and this is the preferred version by many. To me, though, an uncooked Salsa Verde provides the freshness and crisp bite needed to counterbalance many a deep, complex and flavorful Mexican dish be it tacos, enchiladas or even Huevos Rancheros (but that’s another post).
Try uncooked Salsa Verde on for size, I beg of you! If it’s too intense or “raw“ for your liking, cook it quickly (see notes under recipe below) and maybe adjust the seasoning. Remember, a raw Salsa Verde is just a Salsa Verde waiting to get cooked! But how do we make it? I’m Glad you asked!
Salsa Verde: The Perfect Recipe
Note how just above I stated that a Salsa Verde is ground? That’s right, I didn’t use the word blended. That’s because traditionally, Salsa Verde (like other salsas, by the way) were made using a molcajete, a traditional Mexican pestle and mortar. Don’t worry, though, we can get by with less specialized (and more modern) equipment like, say, a food processor or a blender… As long as we are careful and don’t blend too aggressively or too long. Traditional Salsa Verde contains a lot of cilantro and a lot of onion, sometimes even a bit of garlic, neither of whom particularly enjoy being blended to a pulp. Given too rough of a treatment, cilantro will turn icky and grassy whereas onion will turn aggressively pungent. So, as with so many other labors of love, be gentle!
My suggestion? Use a food processor rather than a high-powered blender and heed the instructions below carefully. It might yield a slightly chunky Salsa Verde, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with a chunky dip now, is there?
- 500 grams of tomatillos (fresh or canned)
- 1 medium to large white onion, cut into chunks
- 1-2 Jalapeño chilies, seeds removed.
- 1-2 garlic cloves, grated or very finely chopped (optional)
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 large lime
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Add onion and Jalapeño to a food processor and pulse till roughly chopped.
- Add tomatillos and blitz till a reasonably smooth salsa forms.
- Transfer to a bowl and stir in the chopped leaves of one bunch of cilantro along with the salt and the juice of one lime.
- For best results, cover and refrigerate for at least 30-60 minutes to allow the flavors to properly mingle.
And there you have it, guys and gals, perfect Salsa Verde! Well, more or less! Once your Salsa Verde has rested in the fridge, taste and adjust seasoning. It may need more salt or lime juice. If it’s entirely too zingy for you, you may try adding a little sugar or agave nectar. If it’s still too much to bear, do what many Mexicans do: fry your sauce. Add a healthy scooping of oil to a pot, then add the salsa and “fry” for about twenty minutes to mellow out the edges and create a more complex but less fresh salsa experience.
Whichever route you chose to take, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve made Salsa Verde, one of the most versatile components of Mexican cuisine. How do you use it? Once again, I’m glad you asked! The possibilities are nearly endless:
Great uses for Salsa Verde
On the simplest of levels, Salsa Verde works extremely well as a dipping vessel for tortilla chips: simply serve a bowl of chips with a side of Salsa Roja AND Salsa Verde. The tangy, cooling, bright green sauce will act as a perfect contrast to the spicier, sweeter red sauce.
If you want to kick things up a notch, Salsa Verde makes a great topping or condiment for most of your favorite Mexican dishes like tacos, enchiladas or burritos. Even Tex-Mex favorites like nachos or chimichangas benefit from a thorough slathering of tangy green sauce!
Steak tacos according to the Johan! One of the best possible uses for Salsa Verde if you ask this humble food blogger! Photo credit: Malou Rotvel Pagh, Klidmoster.dk
Basically, your Salsa Verde options are endless. You can even eat it for breakfast! No, really! Try it on eggs and you’ll be amazed! For those of you who have a hard time stomaching hot sauce in the morning, Salsa Verde makes a great, tangy alternative! For those of us who like it hot, even in the mornings, it makes a great co-star. I’m telling you, Salsa Verde on Huevos Rancheros is amazing (but again, that’s another post!).
The only application I can think of where Salsa Verde would not be a particularly great idea is in a dessert (yes, I’m calling you out, Malou!), but aside from that the much overlooked and historically important green sauce is about as versatile as they come and remains one of the very cornerstones of authentic Mexican Cuisine.
Have you made Salsa Verde? If not, what on earth are you waiting for?