Don’t be angry, but… a tomatillo is NOT a tomato. I know, “horror of all horrors”! You are thinking, “the years of lies and deception"! or perhaps, “uuuuhhh what the hell is a tomatillo"? Well, first things first, it most certainly is NOT a green tomato. A tomatillo is a fruit of Mexican origin; its lineage lies in the nightshade family. It is a bright lime green color, orbiting around the size of a golf ball; when it is very ripe it will start to blush purple. Usually, they are sold swaddled in their papery thin husk. Yes! Thooooose things! The little greenish-beige Chinese lanterns tucked between the red peppers and yellow onions in your local (well stocked) supermarket.
Surely, you have had them pureed in a salsa verde-- tangy and delicious. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what this mysterious chili could be. Mild and un-assaulting to the taste buds, tomatillos are commonly added to salsas to offset the spicy flavor of the chilies. When enjoyed raw, they are tangy and bright; they have a bite like a crisp green apple. They have become my new favorite addition to salads and I'm imagining they will make the most delicious tomatillo buerre blanc, when I get around to creating the recipe.
The crisp acidic flavor of tomatillos makes them a sexy companion for fish. I love cooking fish in banana leaves. The leaves impart a delicate earthy flavor to the fish and create a beautiful presentation. It is a salivating “WOW!” moment when you peel back the leaves at the table and the aromatic steam escapes and travels under the noses of fellow diners. Don’t be intimidated by the whole fish or the banana leaves this is a really easy meal to prepare, and as I mentioned, it is dressed to impress. I served it recently with coconut rice and a spinach, pepita, avocado, cojita salad to rave reviews.
Fish Cooked in Banana Leaves with Tomatillos and Guajillo Chilis
1 very fresh whole fish, 1-11/2 pounds
5 med tomatillos, husked, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 cup leeks, thinly sliced into rounds
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1-2 large guajillo chili or New Mexican chili
2 limes, zest then cut into wedges
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, thinly sliced
Cilantro, chopped- optional
Black pepper, freshly ground
Banana leaves- optional
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. To toast the guajillo chili, pour oil into a small sauté pan, about 1 inch deep. When the oil is hot place the chili in the pan, turn it after a few seconds, toast all sides. Have tongs in hand, because they will go from toasted to burned very quickly! Set aside on paper towels to cool. Once it is cooled, remove and discard the steam the seeds, and cut it into 1” squares.
3. Wash the fish inside and out and pat dry. Make three to four deep diagonal slashes on each side of the fish. Liberally season the fish with salt and pepper, inside and out. Slather the lime zest and cumin all over the fish as well, making sure to get it into the slashes.
4. Place two pieces of aluminum foil side by side on your work surface. If you are using the banana leaves, place them overlapping, on top of the foil. They will be easier to work with if you remove the rib of the leaf. Place the fish on top of the leaves in a diagonal.
5. Season the tomatillos and leeks with salt, then stuff half of the tomatillos, leeks and guajillos and 1 tablespoon of butter inside the fish. Top the fish with the remaining half of the ingredients.
6. Tightly wrap the leaves around the fish. Finally, wrap the foil around the fish, tucking in the ends to seal the package well.
7. Bake on a baking sheet for 30 to 40 minutes.
8. The presentation is up to you—I like to remove the foil and place the banana leaf- wrapped fish on a platter, unveil it and fillet it table side. Alternatively, you could place a small square of banana leaf on each plate and fillet and serve it from the kitchen on to the individual plates. Whichever way you slice it, heap the tomatillos, leeks and chilies on top of each filet, spoon the juices over the mound of goodness and serve with lime wedges and cilantro.
NOTE: Look for banana leaves in the nearest Asian grocery store or Mexican bodega. Once you find them, buy a bunch and keep them in the freezer. The banana leaves can be omitted and you will still be rewarded with a delicious, beautiful and oh-so aromatic fish.