by Brittany Avila
This month in the Presidio Heritage Gardens the following vegetables just so happened to be perfectly ripe and ready for picking: tomatillos, onions, poblano peppers and oregano. So instead of searching through historical cookbooks for my next recipe, I decided to utilize the products of our fruitful garden and create a traditional Mexican dish that was sure to have been served in various forms in early California. Therefore I present to you this fresh, tangy concoction known popularly as chile verde.
1 ½ lbs tomatillos
1 white onion
2 poblano peppers (halved and seeded)
4 cloves garlic
¼ tsp Mexican oregano
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp sugar
½ cup vegetable broth
fresh ground pepper (however much you feel necessary)
meat of your choice (pork and poultry are most common for this sauce, but everything from eggs to beef have been used instead!)
You will need to begin by preheating your oven to 450 degrees. Prepare your tomatillos by husking and washing each of them. The washing portion may also involve some scrubbing as some tomatillos might have a sticky residue.
Although we don’t have a specific historical reference of their cultivation in early California, tomatillos were so popular in New Spain that it’s assumed they made their way to California at one point or another through the colonists coming from Mexico.
Cut into halves and place onto a well-oiled baking sheet. As always, I used our Santa Inés Mission Mills olive oil to lubricate the sheet.
Tomatillos were domesticated by the Aztecs almost 3,000 years ago. When Spanish conquistadores were introduced to them in Mexico and Central America, they brought them back to Spain but misnamed them as tomate.
Next cut the poblano peppers into halves, remove all of the seeds inside, wash them off for good measure, and place on a baking sheet when done.
In early California all chiles, regardless of their size, taste or origin were referred to simply as chiles. Therefore it is difficult to make reference to any type of specific chile during this era.
I then cut up my onion, which actually was a bundle of small white onions, since they grew to a smaller size in our garden. I guesstimated how much would be equivalent to one whole onion. I simply cut my small onions into halves, but if you are using one large onion I advise cutting it into quarters or even eighths. Place your chopped onions on the sheet.
Lastly I peeled my garlic cloves and placed them on the sheet with everything else. Garlic was eaten raw to cure dropsy, which is more commonly known as edema. Unfortunately breath mints didn’t exist then to cure the bad breath side effects.
By this time my oven was toasty and ready, and I placed my sheet inside.
After 30 minutes, check on the vegetables…the peppers should be blackening on the outside but not so burnt that the skin WON’T peel off (that’s right, you want that leathery outside to come off). Take only the peppers off the sheet and run under cold water. As you do this, massage the pepper so that the black parts, or the skin, come off. Set aside.
Chiles sold in markets today are 20th century versions of the chiles found by Europeans during the colonization of California.
Once the sheet has been in there a TOTAL of 40 minutes, or when you see the onions browning take the sheet out and let cool.
In early California onions were used as an appetite enhancer, insect repellant and treatment for insect and snake bites.
Take your oregano, salt, sugar, vegetable broth and fresh ground pepper and mix in with peppers, tomatillos, garlic, and onion in a food processor.
Once the mixture has reached a puree, let it simmer in a well-oiled pan for 5-10 minutes. This is the point where you can add some shredded chicken as I did, or whatever pre-cooked meat meets your carnivorous needs.
Hens found in our local region during early California would have been Basque or Majorcan hens brought up from Mexico.
And once again a traditional recipe from Early CA turned out to be a taste bud pleaser!
Garriga, Andrew, and Francis J. Weber. Andrew Garriga’s Compilation of Herbs & Remedies Used by the Indians & Spanish Californians: Together with Some Remedies of His Own Experience. S. 1978. 22, 25.
Timbrook, J. Chumash Ethnobotany:Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California. Berkeley, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Heyday Books, 2007. 26.
Mike Imwalle, SBTHP Archaeologist and Master Gardener, also provided a significant amount of historical information for this piece
Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina