Wed 10 Sep 2008
… which means “little tomato,” a misnomer, as so many things are, because the tomatillo (pronounced “toe-mah-TEE-yo”) well, it’s not a little tomato. Physalis philadelphica, its formal name — and the joke current in tomatillo circles ends with the line, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphica.” — is indeed a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, as is the tomato, but of a different genus than the tomato. It is indigenous to Central and South America, we norteamericanos being most familiar with it in the guise of the salsa verde. the ubiquitous green sauce that adds so much freshness and zip to the cuisine in Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants.
Characteristic of the tomatillo is its jade green color, its firmness when ready to be used (not yielding as a tomato), and its distinctive papery husk, which should be crisp, not to say jaunty, when purchased, not limp or crumbly.
We had some leftover grilled chicken, so LL made a tomatillo sauce to go with it. I don’t remember the recipe exactly; we looked it up on Google. Certainly it had minced garlic and onions and jalapeno peppers and so on. My idea was that the spiciness of the sauce would require a pretty substantial red wine. “Nope,” said LL, who has great intuition about these things, “It’ll take a refreshing white.” OK, I love that sort of challenge, so I assembled three wines to try: the Morgan Winery Syrah 2006, Monterey County; the Astica Torrontés 2007, Valle de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina; and the Hess Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Lake County.
The Morgan Syrah 2006 is a terrific example of the grape and combines fruit from the cool Santa Lucia Highlands region with fruit from the warmer Arroyo Seco and San Lucas areas. Boy, this is dark and spicy, tarry and minerally, vibrant and resonant. It features luscious black currant, black raspberry and blueberry flavors permeated by crushed lavender and lilac and bitter chocolate; after a few minutes, it begins to delve into more exotic territory, with hints of plum pudding and fruit cake, baking spice, leather and brambles. It wears its 13 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, with a sense of inevitability yet deftness. This would be great with steak ranchero or fajitas or pork chops, but LL was right; this wine and chicken with tomatillo sauce were as ships that pass in the night. My rating is Excellent. About $24. Production is 1,600 cases.
Torrontés is Argentina’s best white grape, but it’s a grape that needs thoughtful rather than serious treatment; in other words, it shouldn’t be pumped up to false significance the way that some producers in Italy’s northeastern appellations are jamming up pinot grigio with oak and malolactic. Torrontés should be like a summer breeze, replete with fresh blossoms and herbs. Such a one is the Astica Torrontés 2007, from the area of Mendoza known as Cuyo. Exactly as it should, this wine exhales jasmine and honeysuckle with the addition of a floral astringency, like some shy white mountain flower. Citrus and grapefruit flavors are packed with spice with hints of dried thyme and tarragon, all set into a texture that’s almost talc-like in density. Despite that factor, the wine is notably crisp and vibrant. Very Good and Good Value at about $8. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. As far as the food and wine match is concerned, this was a case of an enjoyable wine that didn’t reveal that spark of affinity for the dish; I think it was too floral, too perfumy.
That sought-for match, the spark, came with the Hess Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Lake County. Fermented partly in stainless steel and partly in used oak barrels, the wine delivers all the freshness, crispness and scintillating minerality you could want in a sauvignon blanc with pleasing heft and texture. There’s jasmine in the top note, lime and tangerine just below, followed by lingering notes of slightly astringent grapefruit and snappy gooseberry, while a spicy and faintly earthy aspect burgeons in the glass. Somehow the juicy-fruitness of this wine, combined with its freshness and spareness, zeroed right in on the fresh, juicy and piquant qualities of the tomatillo salsa. Drink now through summer 2009. Very good+ and a Great Bargain at about $11.
Our next opportunity to use tomatillos came with this wonderful recipe from the May 2008 issue of Food & Wine magazine, the “Mexican Chicken Pozole Verde,” essentially a green chicken stew with hominy, tomatillos, poblano and jalapeno chilies and cilantro. When you serve the stew, you pass bowls of shredded iceberg lettuce, sliced radishes, chopped onion, diced avocado, sour cream (I pass on that!) and tortilla chips, and diners scoop those condiments into their portions. This is an immensely flavorful and satisfying dish and represents the kind of cooking that makes you wonder why European –i.e., French — cuisine dominated the world’s kitchens and tables for so long.
The recommended wine with the meal was a pinot gris from Alsace, but not having one of those, I opened a bottle of the Maso Canali Pinot Grigio 2007, from Trentino, the northernmost of Italy’s northeastern winemaking provinces. This is a superior pinot grigio. It sees no oak or malolactic process, but does contain 6 percent late harvest, rack-dried grapes that are fermented and aged separately from the other lots and blended at the final stage of winemaking. This factor must add considerably to the wine’s unusual richness and body, its dimension and detail. The bouquet breathes peaches, apricots and lemon balm, dusty almond blossom and a touch of almonds. The wine offers an entrancing texture that envelops flavors of roasted lemon and roasted pear etched with dried herbs and honey, though the wine is completely dry and crisp. Drink now through 2010. Excellent. About $23. Imported by Maso Canali, Healdsburg, Cal., and marketed by E&J Gallo.
Images of tomatillos from “Clay’s Kitchen,” www.panix.com.