Versatile Tomatillo Salsa

By Carolyn Niethammer

When I was interviewing chefs for my book The New Southwest Cookbook back in 2005, tomatillos were the vegetable du jour — every chef had them on the menu, usually “blackened” or roasted to heighten the flavor.  I gained new respect for how versatile they are.

I planted six tomatillo plants in August and hoped for a plentiful harvest; I even dreamed about making enough green salsa to can or freeze. Alas, my homegrown tomatillos were so tiny they weren’t worth the trouble and I ended up buying tomatillos grown by a farmer who had a better technique.

My homegrown tomatillos with a commercial one.

My homegrown tomatillos with a commercial one.

In Mexico the tomatillo is called tomate verde, which means “green tomato.” However, tomatillos are not just small, underripe tomatoes, but a distinct vegetable in their own right. Tomatillos are the size of an apricot and covered with a papery husk. They are meatier and less juicy inside than a tomato. Tomatillos are an essential part of Mexican cuisine and have been since the Aztecs domesticated them. Most tomatillos are harvested slightly underripe when then have a tart, slightly lemony flavor that adds zip to salsas.  As they fully ripen they turn more golden and become sweeter.

Tomatillos are the main ingredient in the classic salsa verde, which includes tomatillos, sliced green onions, green chiles of some variety, garlic, and cilantro. Salsa verde can be served raw or very lightly cooked. Of course, you can always put your own spin on salsa verde by using the herbs you have fresh in your garden.

To prepare tomatillos, remove the husk and rinse off the sticky substance on the skin. Rub them with a little oil and then put them under the broiler until they are soft and just slightly brown.

Roasted tomatillos

Roasted tomatillos

I love the flavor of poblano chiles in anything, so I roasted a couple of those while the tomatillos were cooling. When their skins were charred on all sides, I put them in a paper bag to sweat for about 10 minutes (OK, 5 minutes, I was impatient). This makes them easy to peel. Also take off the stem and the seeds.

Roasted poblanos

Roasted poblanos

Next it is time to get creative. Put your tomatillos, skin and all into the blender with some sliced green onions, some peeled garlic cloves, and the peeled chiles. If you want a little more heat, add a half or whole jalapeno, chopped. (And of course you remember to use gloves while chopping the jalapeno and don’t touch your eyes.) Add some chopped cilantro. I had some lovely fresh basil, so I added that as well. Blend well until you have a nice smooth consistency. The chef at Medizona, a top Scottsdale restaurant, added a little apple juice to mellow out the tartness.

Blend the ingredients.

Blend the ingredients.

So now you have this wonderful salsa. How to use it? Try it on tacos or tostadas (photo top of post) or as a sauce for chicken, pork chops, or even shrimp.

Tomatillo salsa on broiled chicken.

Salsa verde on broiled chicken.

Charboiled Tomatillo Sauce from Medizona

Feel free to vary the amounts in this recipe. As they say, “for reference only.”

1/4 pound tomatillos

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 poblano chiles

1/2 jalapeno (optional)

3 green onions, sliced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

5 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup apple juice

Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove husks from tomatillos, wash, and rub with oil. Put under boiler until soft and slightly browned. Let cool.

Broil or grill poblano chiles until all sides are charred. Sweat in paper bag until skins remove easily. Peel and seed.

Combine all ingredients in a blender and whirl until smooth.  If using on hot food, heat in a saucepan before serving.

And just for fun, here’s a garnish tip I learned from Chef Janos Wilder. Carefully loosen the husk from tomatillos, peel them back and you have a lovely flower. They are a great addition to a cheese plate or relish tray for a party.

tomatillo flowers

Carolyn Niethammer writes about Southwest cuisine and edible wild plants of the Southwest. She is happiest when working in her flower or vegetable gardens, out on the desert gathering wild foods, or devising new recipes for the plants she has gathered. Her five cookbooks range from a look at the way Native Americans cooked wild plants to a collection of recipes devised by the Southwest’s top restaurant and resort chefs for incorporating the area’s iconic ingredients in delicious dishes. This post originally appeared on Savor the Southwest.

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Books for Everyone on Your List

Books make wonderful gifts for everyone on your list. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. We encourage you to visit your local bookseller, especially on Small Business Saturday (Nov 29), or e-mail to find these and many more.

For the little one

hairy christmas

A Very Hairy Christmas, by Susan Lowell with illustrations by Jim Harris

For the art lover

sw art

Southwest Art Defined, by Margaret Moore Booker

For the foodie

essential sw

The Essential Southwest Cookbook, Rio Nuevo Publishers

For the hiker



Boots and Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, by Roger Naylor

For the history buff

Ghost Riders New-cover copy

Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Life of Stan Jones, The Singing Ranger, by Michael K. Ward

For the gardener

hot garden

The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest, by Scott Calhoun


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Friday Photo 11/21

beaver creek tom white

Fall colors at Beaver Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Photo by Tom White.

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Barbecued Southwestern Turkey

SW comfortLooking for a new twist on the traditional Thanksgiving turkey? If you’re lucky enough to live in a warm climate, a barbecued turkey is a delicious change from the traditional method. If you have to do this in the oven, it works just as well. It just doesn’t have the smoky taste. From Southwest Comfort Food, by Marilyn Noble.

Barbecued Southwestern Turkey

Serves 6

1 fresh turkey, 12–14 pounds
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons red chile powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 orange, cut into eighths, peel on
1 apple, cored and sliced
1 onion, quartered
2 cups fresh orange juice
1 cup white wine

Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Heat the grill to low (about 300 degrees F) and push the coals to one side. Prepare a drip pan. If using a gas grill, follow the manufacturer’s directions for indirect heat grilling.

Remove the giblets from the turkey and discard, or save for making gravy. Rinse the bird and pat it dry. Work the softened butter underneath the turkey skin. Make a rub by mixing the chile powder, cumin, garlic, pepper, and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the entire turkey. Place the orange, apple, and onion pieces in the body cavity. Sprinkle with salt, tuck the wing ends under, and secure the legs.

Place the turkey on the grill over the drip pan and cover the grill. Baste periodically with a mixture of the orange juice and white wine, and roast until an instant-read thermometer reads 170 degrees F, approximately 3–4 hours. Remove from the grill and allow to stand for about 30 minutes before carving.

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What We Are Reading: November

Here is what our staff is reading this month. We hope you’re reading something great too!

Working StiffWorking Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T. J. Mitchell
review by Marilyn Noble

Dr. Judy Melinek is a forensic pathologist who shares her experiences as a young doctor during a two-year training program in the office of the New York Medical Examiner. This ain’t no clean and easy episode of Law and
Order. She details the most interesting cases she handled during her time there, and she spares no detail when it comes to the mechanics of an autopsy; what happens to the human body during a plane crash, fire, overdose, or fall from a building; or the emotional toll determining the
cause of death can take on the professionals involved in the case. Melinek
began her training a few weeks before 9/11 and talks about the traumatic
task of identifying human remains from the carnage. This book isn’t an
overly-sensationalized memoir of her time in a big-city M.E. department, but
it’s frank and honest and definitely not for the squeamish. T. J. Mitchell is
her husband, and the glimpse into their life with their baby daughter in New
York provides some relief from the grimness of her professional stories.

If you want to know what really goes on in an M.E.’s office, or if you’re
intrigued by stories of life and death and how they play out, or want to
understand how a forensic pathologist can actually solve mysteries (or not),
you’ll find this a fascinating read. On the other hand, if you’re bothered
by blood, gore, or the subject of death, you might want to skip it.

Call Me ZeldaCall Me Zelda, by Erika Robuck
review by Jim Turner

As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel. But as a budding historian in grade school, I devoured those orange-backed “Childhood of Famous Americans” biographies. So, when I stumbled on Erika Robuck’s Call Me Zelda (about Fitzgerald’s wife) on a sunny shelf in Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, I had to buy it.

Speaking of Bart’s, where else can you find such a great selection in an open-air bookstore? The shelves are in a large enclosed patio, miraculously protected from the weather. Nothing beats browsing for books in a real bookstore, especially one with terrific ambiance. I had never heard of this author, nor did I know that I was looking for a novel based on meticulously researched details of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life. The title just popped out at me while I was perusing.

Robuck created Bart's Booksa fictional psychiatric nurse as the narrator, and weaves her story of lost loved ones, Zelda’s friendship, and even her search for Zelda’s lost diaries, into the plot. The book even features a bibliography of non-fiction works and book group discussion questions at the end. I like Robuck’s lyrical style. Before purchasing, I like to skim books to see if the text flows, if there are vivid descriptions, and whether there’s creative dialogue. Zelda met those criteria. I found myself setting aside chunks of time to read uninterrupted and become transported into the era and story line.

Finally, here’s what Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade, said about Call Me Zelda:

“A Jamesian sense of the uncanny haunts Erika Robuck’s poignant, compassionate portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald’s desperate dance with mental illness . . . mesmerizing, page-turning, and provides us with a fresh, very human look at two literary icons.”

Shadow RisingThe Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan
review by Caroline Cook

I enjoy fantasy, but don’t know too much about what’s good in the genre or where to start. I heard about The Wheel of Time series from a friend, and decided to check it out. Shortly after starting the first book, The Eye of the World, I was hooked. Now I’m in the middle of book four, The Shadow Rising. If you enjoy Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, you will like Jordan’s work as well. The Wheel of Time is strongly reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, but it has its own distinct style, characters, and mythology. Jordan writes beautifully and vividly. There are gray areas between good and evil that give the characters depth and interest. Strong and powerful women fill the pages, which is nice to see in an epic fantasy story.

The fourteenth and final volume in the series was published in 2013. Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 while working on the twelfth volume, but left extensive notes, so author Brandon Sanderson was able to complete the series. I look forward to continuing on in the series, and hope that the rest of the volumes are as good as the first four.

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Roger Naylor on Arizona Horizon

Roger Naylor with bootsRoger Naylor talks about his new book Boots and Burgers on Arizona Horizon.




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Congratulations to the winners!

Our contest entries this time around ranged from the sublime to the creepy, and our editorial board and readers have spoken. Our grand prize winner is Saija Lehtonen for her El Dorado tail fin photo from week 3. The photo earning the most likes from our Facebook friends was Bob Miller’s Monsoon Madness from week 1. Congratulations to both of you! You’ll be receiving a collection of Rio Nuevo books as well as a profile on the Rio Nuevo blog.

We have more fun contests coming in the future, so follow our page and encourage your friends to do so, too.

1959 Cadillac El Dorado tail fin by Saija Lehtonen

1959 Cadillac El Dorado tail fin by Saija Lehtonen

Monsoon Madness by Bob Miller

Monsoon Madness by Bob Miller

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Roger Naylor events this week

Roger Naylor with bootsRoger Naylor events this week for Boots and Burgers:

Thursday, catch him on Arizona Horizon on PBS Channel 8 at 5:30pm.

Friday, he will be signing books at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe at 7pm.

Saturday, he will be signing books at Well Red Coyote in Sedona at 2pm.

Find out where to hike in AZ and where to chow down afterward!

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Week Four Winner, and Another Honorable Mention

Santiago Week 4Once again our editorial staff had a tough decision this week. Every one of the entries was a perfect example of the theme, from Sarah Dolliver’s skeletal tree and Desert View tower to the Prescott cemetery from Jag Fergus. It was such a hard decision, in fact, that we once again chose a winner and an honorable mention.

We were all attracted to (and more than a little spooked by) Dawn Santiago’s gravedigger at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. The full moon, encased in clouds, adds an otherworldy cast to the lighting, and even though there’s one corpse ready for the undertaker’s shovel, you get the feeling he could easily handle more. Congratulations, Dawn! You take the prize this week.

Miller Week 4We couldn’t get over the creepy factor in Bob Miller’s cast-off doll photo, so we decided to award him an honorable mention. The blank eyes, the crackled skin — the photo sends shivers down our spines.

Dawn and Bob, please email aarond – at – rionuevo dot com with your snail mail addresses and he’ll get your books out to you.

Thanks to everyone who entered our contest over the last four weeks. We’ve enjoyed seeing your creativity! We’ll announce the grand prize and people’s choice winners next Friday. Speaking of people’s choice, voting is open until midnight Mountain time tonight, so be sure to like your favorite photos from all four weeks of the contest. You can vote for more than one. Just go to the Rio Nuevo Facebook page and click on posts to page. You can scroll through all of the entries. Be sure to share with your friends!

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Orange Flan

R-044414Final-webWhile I was eating a flan from a local Mexican restaurant the other day, I couldn’t help but think of the best flan I had ever tasted . . . this Orange Flan from Southwest Comfort Food, by Marilyn Noble. We all tried it after photographing it for the book, and it was amazing!

Orange Flan

Serves 12–15

1 1/2 cups sugar
8 eggs
2 cans (14 ounces each) sweetened condensed milk
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon orange extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
2 cans mandarin oranges, drained, for garnish
Raspberries, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Pour the sugar into a heavy, medium-sized skillet. Place the skillet over medium heat until the sugar begins to melt. Reduce the heat to low and, without stirring, allow the sugar to melt and turn golden brown. Working quickly, pour the resulting caramel over the bottom of a 3-quart glass baking dish, tilting to spread up the sides.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until blended and then whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, whole milk, vanilla, orange extract, salt, and liqueur. Blend until smooth. Strain the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Cover the dish with foil. Place a large roasting pan of warm water on the oven’s middle rack. Set the baking dish into the roasting pan. The water must reach half the depth of the baking dish.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours until the center feels just firm when pressed. Remove from the water bath and allow to cool. Refrigerate until serving.

To serve, run a knife around the edges of the baking dish. Place a large serving platter over the dish and turn both upside down. Gently shake the dish to release the flan. Use the drained mandarin slice sot create flowers on the top of the flan, using the raspberries for the centers.

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