According to a recent survey, many young New Zealanders don’t even recognise common vegetables. I am a couple of years too old to be part of the surveyed population, but I would have asserted unhesitatingly, if asked, that I was familiar with all the vegetables commonly used in Western cuisine. This doesn’t mean I’m willing to cook all of them - you will never see brussels sprouts in my kitchen unless someone has specially requested them, I’m participating in some strange cooking competition, or I’m under threat of violence – but I know what they are. Sometimes I even grow them. (The vagaries of Massachusetts summers are making those efforts variably successful, but I persevere.)
I could even point out something like okra, if only because we looked at it in that botany class I took during undergraduate to pad out a few extra biology credits. Vegetable-wise, I’m good. And I wasn’t expecting to discover any new ones while we were living in America; new forms of junk food, yes. On that front I have not been disappointed. Bemused, stunned, and occasionally startled, yes, but not disappointed.
So when I set out to find a recipe for a really good salsa I’d had in several Mexican restaurants – known rather generically as “salsa verde” – I assumed it was going to involve green tomatoes, because, well, “regular” salsa used the red type and this one was green and that basically made sense. Of course, we all know where assumptions lead you.
Salsa verde is, in fact, made primarily (i.e. almost entirely) out of tomatillos, which confusingly means “little tomatoes”. They are, in point of fact, not very closely related; tomatillos are closest to cape gooseberries, as you can probably tell from the papery husks. This did explain why salsa verde tasted so delicious. I was always a bit skeptical about the probability of green tomatoes tasting that good. It’s genuinely unlike anything else I’ve ever had; the sign at the locak supermarket describes them as tasting of “sour apples”, which isn’t totally inaccurate but undersells them, in my opinion. And pork cooked in salsa verde – which is how I originally encountered it – is pretty much the best thing ever. I’m already feeling depressed at the thought I might not be able to find tomatillos in New Zealand. (If anyone knows how I can, tell me!) Otherwise, I’ll just have to try growing them.
The thing is, I clearly need to pay more attention to what’s in food over here. It might keep surprising me.