Cooking With a Pinch of History: Chile Verde

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!)

These tomatillos were picked fresh from the Presidio Heritage Gardens where they grew like weeds! Photo by Brittany Avila.

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Although we don’t have a specific historical reference of their cultivation in early California, tomatillos were so popular in New Spain that it’s assumed they made their way to California at one point or another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.

The tomatillos after preparation and oven-ready! Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

Another pick from the Presidio Heritage Gardens! Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

Onions from once again…the Presidio Heritage Gardens! Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

Garlic before being peeled. Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

The outside of the pepper right before it’s ready to be peeled. Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

The vegetables are just brown enough and ready to be taken out of the oven. Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

The oregano shown here was taken from El Presidio Heritage Gardens and therefore had to be taken off the stalk and crushed before I could add it in. Also shown are the quantities of salt and sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.

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.

Finished to a puree in the blender and then simmering on medium level heat just enough to warm up meat choice and the chile verde. Photo by Brittany Avila.

And once again a traditional recipe from Early CA turned out to be a taste bud pleaser!

The final product…tastes better than it looks! Photo by Brittany Avila.


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

#recipe #chileverde #tomatillo #cooking #presidio #gardens


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