When is a tomato not a tomato? When it’s a tomatillo. Yes, their aliases include Mexican husk tomato and “tomato verde” and both tomatillos and tomatoes are members of the nightshade family, but that’s where the similarities end.
Years ago tomatillos were one of those “let’s try this and see” additions to the garden. I certainly wasn’t familiar with the sprawling bushy plants that first produce lots of leaves and little yellow flowers. These flowers eventually turn into bright green papery Chinese lanterns. The tomatillo grows inside this husk and when the fruit is mature, the husk dries out and turns a tan color and the tomatillo splits the husk open. Under that husk they look like hard little green tomatoes. They have a bright fresh flavor, a little citrusy and herbal. I have used them for salsa verde and a chicken tomatillo soup. This time I wanted to use tomatillos in a sauce for braised chicken thighs. I found my inspiration from Mexican cooking authority, Rick Bayless. His recipe for a braised pork loin in tomatillo sauce could be adapted for chicken so I knew I would be getting the direction I needed.
Start the dish by making the tomatillo sauce or salsa, remember, salsa is the Spanish word for sauce. Turn the broiler to high and move the oven rack to the highest position.Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse off the sticky residue, that residue is a natural deterrent to insects. In this case it took 28 tomatillos to make a pound. Put them on a foil lined baking sheet, stem side down so they won’t roll around as much. It is a good idea to double up on the baking sheets so they won’t buckle under the broiler from the heat. Add one green jalapeno to the sheet and broil until the tomatillos are roasted, even blackened in spots and very soft. Transfer everything, including the juices to a blender and process until smooth. Set the sauce aside while you brown the chicken.
In a 4-5 quart Dutch oven, brown the chicken pieces. You will need to do this in batches, the chicken should be golden brown, not stewed. Rick instructs that you use either all white meat (breast) or all dark (thighs) because the cooking times will be different, I find that dark meat holds up better to the braising process. After the meat is browned it is removed to a plate. No need to rinse the pot, now it’s time to finish off the sauce.
Return the Dutch oven to medium heat and cook the onion and garlic. Raise the temperature to medium high and add the tomatillo puree. Cook until it is dark green and thickened, this concentrates the flavors of the sauce. A little water thins out the sauce, Rick feels the addition of stock would make the sauce too rich. Now is the time to add some heavy or sour cream if desired. It lightens up the sauce and I liked it with the chicken. Add some fresh cilantro or the more traditional purslane also known as verdolagas in Mexico. I will definitely try that when purslane makes an appearance in the garden again. Nestle the chicken pieces in the sauce, put the lid on and cook in the oven for thirty minutes.
Potatoes add an earthy element to the dish. Parboil some red potatoes while the chicken is cooking, close to the end of the cooking they are nestled in the sauce between the chicken pieces. Serve the chicken topped with sauce with some potatoes on the side. The end result is a rich, warm satisfying dish and the perfect transition from summer to fall cooking.
Ripe green and purple tomatillos.
Braised Chicken Thighs in Tomatillo Sauce
- 1 lb fresh tomatillos
- 1 medium jalapeno pepper
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- 8 medium skin on, bone in chicken thighs, 2½ to 3 lbs
- 1½ T olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped’
- 1/3 c chopped cilantro
- A little crema or heavy cream if desired
- 1¼ lbs red skinned potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
- Roast the tomatillos and chile on a baking sheet four inches below a very hot broiler until darkly roasted, even blackened in spots, about 5 minutes. Flip them over and roast on the other side for another 4-5 minutes. Tomatillos should be splotchy black and the chile soft and cooked through.
- Cool a bit then transfer everything, including the juices that have accumulated on the tray to a blender. Process until smoothly pureed.
- Set a 4-5 quart Dutch oven over medium heat, when the oil is hot add chicken pieces skin side down. It is best to do this in batches, you want the chicken to brown, not stew. Brown the chicken on the first side for 5 minutes, then turn over and brown on the other side. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate and keep warm.
- In the same Dutch oven over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, until golden, about 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook a minute longer. Raise the heat to medium heat and when the oil is sizzling, add the tomatillo puree all at once. Stir until it is darker and noticeably thicker. Add 1 ½ cups of water and the cilantro. If you desire a mellower sauce add about a ½ cup cream or sour cream to the sauce. Taste and season with a little salt. Stir the sauce well to combine.
- Heat oven to 325°F. Nestle the chicken pieces in the warm sauce, cover the pot and set in the oven. Cook for 30 minutes.
- While the chicken is cooking, simmer the potatoes in a pan of salted water to cover until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- When the chicken has cooked for thirty minutes, nestle the cooked potatoes into the sauce around the meat. Recover and cook for another 5-10 minutes.
- Serve the chicken and potatoes with the sauce over it.