Blog of an aspiring foodie

The beginning of a vision – cuisine d'Houston? (BACKPOST)

Posted by beer_chris on 11-July-2004

It's been a little while since my last entry. Since then, Side Street Brewing has closed, my pico was a complete failure (WAY too much lime juice – do NOT dump the juice used to mellow the onions into the mix!), I've been to Europe, and eaten the magnificent food of France, Germany and the pubs of London, and I've invented one heck of a good cream of tomatillo soup.

I was joking with my mother that my tomatillo soup is what I want to open a restaurant with. One of my pipe dreams is to try and open my own British-style pub, complete with 'pub grub' menu of delicious-but-good-with-beer-foods. The tomatillo soup is the dish I think every good pub needs – a signature dish people come specifically to eat on a regular basis – a dish I can be known for, but something that can be eaten when just stopping by for a pint. It has that combination of uniqueness and great flavor that I think could fit the bill. Tomatillos are related to the tomato, I think. They look kind of like green tomatoes, with a husky leaf like covering. They are coated with some kind of waxy oil that smells something like squash and fresh tomato leaves combined, and the insides smell this way too, and are full of small round seeds, much smaller then a normal tomato. The flavor is bitter and remotely vegetal, with a little heat hidden in there somewhere. They are used primarily around Houston in salsas and sauces for things like enchiladas, but are available almost everywhere (even Kroger), so I think there must be other recipes. However, I don't think I've ever seen a dish featuring them. To make my soup I start with about two pounds of tomatillos, husk, wash and quarter them, and then boil them in chicken stock for about 20-30 minutes, or until they are soft. The cooking enhances the vegetal flavor and softens the meat, which is pretty firm to start with. The soup needs heat or sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the main ingredient, and I use both. For heat, I use jalapeno, fresh, and for sweetness I use cloves. The cloves are what I think makes my soup unique. It's that kicker ingredient no one will ever guess is included, and it's the key to make the soup good. Without it, the flavor is overwhelmed with the bitterness of the tomatillo. With it, the heat, bitter and sweet balance is just right. I put in just enough to taste it as a unique ingredient, but only if you are expecting it. Otherwise the flavor is just seems balanced (at least that's what people tell me).

As a side note, I think this is also one of the important qualities of a 'signature' dish – some ingredient that no one would ever guess, but which makes all the difference in the taste. It takes something super easy to make, like cream of vegetable soup, and 'fixes' it so that no one can ever duplicate the exact taste without actually knowing the exact recipe. It's this combination of ease of preparation and impossibility of duplication that makes something like the Doubletree chocolate chip cookies, or biscuits at the DOT diner something to be had only at those places. Part of the taste of the dish becomes the place it is served. I think this soup can be that kind recipe. Anyway, I've made it without as much heat, and the bitterness really overwhelms. It needs two jalapenos with seeds to balance. Additionally, salt is required to bring out the 'tomatoness' and spiciness of the tomatillos themselves. Fat is also important, as it is with any cream soup. I've tried it with 1 stick plus 2 tblsp butter, and a cup of cream, but that is just too heavy. 1 stick + 1 cup is about right, and maybe a little more cream might work, just to further work on the bitterness of the tomatillo. I start with a soup base, garlic, celery, onion, shallot, jalapenos, brown the onion and then add the stock and tomatillos. Honestly, I haven't noticed that much of any of those flavors in the final dish, and I'm going to experiment some with added spices and additional amounts of the soup base veggies. Here's the basic recipe:

Chris' Tomatillo Soup

2 lbs tomatillo, husked and quartered
2 whole jalapenos, or other fresh (and hot) peppers
1/2 small onion
2 stalks celery
1 shallot
2 cloves garlic
1 stick butter (salted or unsalted)
1.5 quarts chicken stock
Salt (to taste, about 2 tsp for me)
Cloves (to taste, 1/2 to 1 tsp, depending on how much heat is in the puree)

1. Give the onion, celery, shallot and garlic a rough chop to uniform pieces. It's not required to mince, as the soup is going to be pureed later, but the pieces should be uniform so that they cook evenly.
2. Carefully chop the jalapeno, taking care to keep the seeds and juice away from you (I use rubber gloves that I keep specifically for cutting hot peppers, my skin is extremely sensitive to capsaicin) Saute the chopped veggies in 2 tblsp butter over medium high heat until the onion is colored a golden. Try not to burn the milk solids in the butter.
3. Add the stock and tomatillos, bring to a boil for 20-30 minutes, or until the liquid has lost about 1/2 quart and the tomatillos are releasing their innards
4. Puree in SMALL batches (to avoid blender explosions!)
5. Add the butter and cream to the puree, and heat slowly until the butter and cream are fully incorporated into the mixture.
6. Bring to a low boil, stirring regularly. Boil for a minute or so to set the cream and thicken
7. Add salt and clove to taste

Serve with fresh cilantro. Really good cold!

I think it could take more garlic (maybe even double), and more onion. I also have used some of those tiny little red peppers that people grow on ornamental bushes – they add just a little bit of color. The overall color should be a rich pea green. I'm considering adding a spice mixture (Zatarans or a cumin mix or something) at saute time, to see if I can deepen the flavor at all. Maybe it could be made with less fat. I won't be trying that ;-). This is one of those dishes that kind of fits with my current focus – trying to use the ingredients that are available freshest here in town to create a cuisine d'Houson that isn't completely reliant on Tex-Mex dishes, and doesn't delve too deeply into the banal southwestern cuisine that dominates the professional culinary world west of Sealy. I think it might be possible, given the success I've had to date with this dish and my 'Houston jambalaya', which used venison meat, couscous and chorizo to make a really great cajun influenced but uniquely Houston style dish. There just doesn't seem to be much out there that really does that kind of fusion – southwestern, Tex-Mex, authentic Mexican, cajun and home-cooking.

Maybe that could be my vision for a culinary career


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