Few people would suspect that a rabbit cooked in plum sauce would be anything like the Mexican classic chile verde. In many respects, including flavor, this is true. But in their preparations, both dishes employ a similar methodology. The technique, in essence, is to slowly cook meat with fruit, which encourages a mutual unlocking of flavors and textures. The fruit’s acid softens the meat, while its tangy flavor mingles with fat and flesh.
A fruit, technically speaking, is the swollen ovary of a flower. It usually contains seeds. While conventional wisdom says that fruit grows on trees, some very well-known fruits, like cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and snap peas, come from annual plants. In the case of chile verde, pork is cooked slowly with two annual fruits: green chile and tomatillo. Tomatillos are close relatives of gooseberries, with a sour taste and the added bonus of coming individually wrapped in baggy shells that look like paper lanterns. Some people make tomatillo salsa, or mix them in with tomato salsa.
But let’s face it: While most of us look forward to summer, it isn’t usually for the tomatillos. At the farmers market, they often get lost in the shuffle when all the other produce is ripe. But even a small taste of good chile verde will assure you of the worth of the tomatillo. Once, after I’d prepared a masterful batch, a spastic housemate spilled the whole bowl. I ate it off the floor.
To serve five people, brown 1.5 pounds of cubed pork meat (untrimmed) in a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Remove the pork, add an onion and two to four garlic cloves, all chopped. When the onions are tender, season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and a teaspoon of cumin. Then return the browned pork and a quart of chicken broth to the pan. Simmer for half an hour.
Stir in two chopped poblano peppers, two chopped jalapeños, and a chopped bell pepper (or more chopped chiles — the more, and the more diverse, the better!). Blend 3/4 pound tomatillos and half a bunch of cilantro. Add this puree to the pot and cook it for another hour and a half on low heat, seasoning with salt and pepper and stirring frequently. You can increase the heat to reduce cooking time, but the pork won’t have the same fall-apart tenderness. Serve with tortillas.
I first began noticing the fruity meat technique when I was dealing with a rabbit that was gifted to me. Bunny recipes are a little hard to come by, but since I’d heard that rabbit tastes like chicken, my strategy was to find a chicken recipe and apply it to rabbit. I went with chicken in plum sauce.
It was fabulous. Not too sweet, as I’d feared, and what sweetness there was complemented the meat surprisingly well. So I tried it again, this time with pork chops and apples — kind of like the classic pork chops and applesauce maneuver — and that too was splendid. Last night I tried The Technique with elk and apricots, which also did not disappoint.
The flexibility afforded by The Technique, in terms of both meat and fruit, allows you to use ingredients that are fresh off the tree (or the hoof), or stuff that’s been frozen a while. With the elk-apricot variation, both meat and fruit had been frozen nearly a year. If you have fresh and frozen options, it’s better to cycle through the older stuff and reserve the good stuff for applications that won’t turn your freshies into mush.
Cut meat into manageable (larger than bite-sized) pieces. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then dredge and fully coat in breadcrumbs (I prefer Japanese-style crumbs, or panko flakes). Fry these coated chunks slowly in butter until perfectly browned.
If the animal you’re using is a mammal (like cow, deer, elk, duck-billed platypus, or my cousin Brian), then go for a tough cut of meat, like shoulder or shank. Or cut up a whole small animal and toss it in. The tough cuts, like shank and shoulder, are the tastiest of all — if you cook them long enough. Meanwhile, after the initial step of breading and frying, the tough cuts are still too chewy to tempt any would-be nibblers. If using tender cuts, you must defend your fried meat while resisting your own urge to taste, even a little nibble, or else your meat might not make it to the next step.
As the meat slowly turns golden-brown, add the peeled whole cloves of two heads of garlic. Then add roughly twice as much fruit as meat (the fruit is pitted or peeled, as necessary) and enough chicken or veggie stock to cover the whole business. Cook in the oven with the lid on until everything is spoon-tender. The tougher the cut, the longer you have to cook it. Monitor every half-hour or so, adding water (or vinegar, or wine, to taste) whenever it starts to dry out.
Your spices should relate to the particular fruit and meat of your pairing. I used mint in my elk-apricot dish, which was great. But don’t feel bound to “sweet” spices like cinnamon, cardamom, or nutmeg. Bust out the cumin and the black pepper! Sweet and savory are not mutually exclusive. •