Despite a summer of neglect it is still growing, the rooftop garden. It's a pleasant place, quieter than the alley below, the rubber roof underfoot warm from the sun despite the October chill. Still it is producing tomatillos, still serranos. Small raised beds are watered by an ingenious system of tubing and valves controlled from below. Rangy tomatoes are held aloft by twine suspended from frames above the planters. There are other things growing in full-sun, squirrel-free bliss--a giant head of incongruous cauliflower, a summer squash plant, a few dandelions. But the tomatillos seem to be in charge of things up there now.
That's because one of this garden's main jobs is to keep the family in salsa.
It is no ordinary salsa. If we are ever the recipients of this salsa from our neighbors, I will find the container on the counter before I have a chance to serve it with chips--empty, with a spoon sticking out. Looks like my husband found it. Again.
The maker of this salsa is from Mexico City. Living in Chicago for decades now, he traded one urban existence for another. But the origin of this salsa, or part of it anyway, goes back another generation, to non-urban roots. But not the recipe. "I don't have much recollection of how my mom used to do this," Saul said, turning tomatillos on the stove, roasting them, charring them. "This is my own thing."
It's faster if you do this part in the broiler, but roasting over a flame on top of the stove is better if you have the time. One time-saver Saul does endorse is the use of a blender. It also creates a finely-chopped texture. This is different than the one thing he remembers his mother doing: slowly, slowly chopping her onions, peppers, tomatillos into a minute dice with a huge serrated knife, talking as she chopped, seated, for hours.
Thick slices of a large onion wait on a cutting board next to a small can of chipotles. "These things," he said, gesturing toward the canned peppers with tongs, "you never know. Sometimes they're mild. Sometimes they're hot. You have to try them every time." If he's not using the canned chipotles, he'll use the garden serranos, roasting them on the foil-covered pan with everything else.
A few cloves of garlic, some cumin, Mexican oregano. I ask him about that. My family tells me Greek oregano is best. "Greek oregano is good, but a little flowery for this. Mexican oregano is strong, sharp. Regular oregano? Tasteless." Finally, some sea salt. Any particular sea salt?, I ask. Saul nods. "From Colima. It's where my mother's from." Some cooks are very particular about their sea salt. "I don't use it because it's fancy. But I did see a guy on a cooking show using Colima sea salt and I thought that was pretty great."
Colima sea salt is prized for its characteristics: it is mild, subtle, and "fluffy." I have no idea how salt can possibly be fluffy, until I get a look at this stuff where it is kept in the family's salt pig. It looks like artificial snow.
Colima is Mexico's third smallest and least populous state, home of Mexico's highest literacy rates, lowest poverty rates. It's edged by gorgeous beaches and filled in with mountains heavy with undergrowth, including a volcano that last erupted less than 15 years ago. Colima relies mostly on agriculture and tourism for its healthy economy. "It's still nice," Saul tells me. The salt is produced on the coast in great drying flats, washed again in the ocean, dried and bagged. You can buy it for a song there, but my own internet search yielded no source for Colima salt here. I think you have to know someone. Saul's someone is his sister. He needs to check in with her pretty soon because his bag of espuma del mar is just about empty.
Can salsa taste like a place? Can it capture the light of a place--golden, shimmering, warm? Can an urban rooftop garden's late season yield be roasted and mixed just so with garlic, onions, and sea salt from a world away to bring us the warmth of the tropical Pacific coast?
Try it and see. Mix up a batch in your blender. It's pretty simple, and you can be finished with the whole thing in about 45 minutes, but I'm afraid the Colima salt won't be easy to access. Use your favorite salt, but a little less, since Colima salt is so mild. You might want to save some of this stuff--if you can manage that--for the dead of winter, when you're going to need a jolt of light and warmth. Trust me. It'll work.
Saul's Tomatillo Salsa
3 lbs tomatillos
1 1/2 lbs tomatoes
5 thick slices of a large yellow onion (brushed with a little olive oil, but not too much)
2 cloves garlic
1 7.5 oz can chipotles in adobo sauce, such as San Marcos brand
1/2 t cumin
1 t Mexican oregano
1 1/2 t sea salt
1/2 c fresh cilantro
Cover a roasting pan with foil and place it over two burners on top of the stove. Fill it up with tomatoes and tomatillos. Over medium-high heat, roast them, charring and turning slowly. After 10 to 15 minutes the tomatillos should go from bright green to a sage green, get a little translucent, and soft. Their juices will be running. Remove them and place the onions on the pan. The tomatoes will take another 15 to 20 minutes, and in that time continue to turn them. They will be well charred with splitting skins when they are done. The onions will be roasting on top of that tomatillo juice which will carmelize as the onions cook. They will blacken and become translucent, cooked down till they are soft and sweet.
Now throw in the blender the tomatillos, tomatoes, cumin, oregano, and sea salt. Add 2 peppers from the can of chipotles, plus about 2 T liquid from the can (use more if you like things spicier, less if you prefer mild). Blend it--not too much--10 to 15 seconds on low speed. Add the onions, and blend another 20-30 seconds on low speed. If you blend it too much, the texture becomes creamy, which is not the goal here. Stop short of creamy and try to keep things at the very-fine-dice level. Let this cool. When it is cooled, add 1/2 c cilantro, lightly chopped before you put it in the blender. Blend 15 seconds on low.
Try not to eat it all at once.
Photo of Manzanillo at sunset, www.tomzap.com
Filed under: recipes