Chicken Tomatillo Stew

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By Emily Paster

Tomatillos are one of the more misunderstood fruits out there. Perhaps because of their name or because they are often used to make salsa, many people associate them with tomatoes. But in fact, tomatillos are members of the nightshade family. Their closest relatives are the gooseberry or the ground cherry — a late-summer farmers' market crop that is the size and color of a cherry tomato, but likewise is not in the tomato family. (I always chicken out about buying ground cherries when I see them at the farmers' market because I'm just not sure how to use them. This summer, though, I hope to be more courageous. I promise to report back.)

Tomatillos and their cousins all come in papery husks that should be removed prior to use. The fruit can sometimes be a bit sticky under the husk, but the stickiness washes off easily with water. Look for firm, round fruit without wrinkles, which is a sign of age. Tomatillos have a tart, fruity taste which pairs well with sweet vegetables like peppers and corn and brightens up any dish that contains them. You can find tomatillos year-round in well-stocked grocery stores or Mexican markets, but they are readily available in the summer at many farmers markets.  Jarred tomatillo salsa are also easy to find, often under the name "salsa verde." Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless's brand of tomatillo salsa gets particularly good reviews.

I love tomatillos and I buy them in large quantities at the farmers market during the summer months. Using a recipe from Eugenia Bone's book Well-Preserved, I put up as many quarts of spicy tomatillo sauce as I can manage knowing that I will use the sauce to create flavorful stews and Mexican-inspired dishes all winter long.To make the sauce, I first blanch the peeled tomatillos in boiling water for a few minutes. Then, I puree them in my food processor and simmer the pureed tomatillos with onions, garlic, lemon juice and roasted hot peppers to make a tart sauce with just a little heat. I use this versatile sauce  in dishes like chicken enchiladas with salsa verde and chilaquiles.

This week I used my very last quart of tomatillo sauce to make a flavorful veggie-laden chicken tomatillo stew that almost tricked me into believing that it was summer again. But if you don't happen to have homemade tomatillo sauce in your pantry, and don't feel like making some, this recipe would work very well with any tomatillo salsa that you can find in your supermarket.

This recipe is a great introduction to tomatillos for those of you who aren't familiar with this tart green gem. If you already love tomatillos from sampling them at your favorite Mexican restaurant, here is a fun way to bring their unique flavor home. I roasted two chicken breasts especially for this stew, but any leftover cooked chicken will do. Also, I served my stew over polenta that I flavored with some sharp cheddar cheese. But it would also work well on its own or over rice. Garnish the stew with chopped fresh cilantro and diced green chiles.

Chicken Tomatillo Stew

2 bone-in chicken breasts
5 TB olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bell peppers ( I used one red and one yellow), chopped
1 zucchini, diced
1 tsp. each cumin and coriander
1 quart tomatillo sauce or salsa
12 oz. beer
1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine, especially at this time of year)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Preheat oven to 375. Place chicken breasts on a baking sheet and brush with 2 TB of the olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Roast for 40 minutes until cooked through. Allow to cool. Remove meat from bones and shred into bite-sized pieces. (This step may be done in advance.) Set chicken aside.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven, heat remaining 3 TB of olive oil over medium heat. Saute onions over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and bell pepper and continue to saute until tender, about 10 minutes. Add zucchini and season with cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. Saute 1-2 additional minutes until fragrant. Add chicken, tomatillo sauce and beer and bring stew to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer until thickened about 30 minutes. Add corn kernels and simmer for a few additional minutes until the corn is heated through. Garnish with chopped cilantro. If desired, serve over polenta or rice.

I hope you are inspired to get creative with tomatillos soon!

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