Ever Try Your Tomatillos Raw? This Steak, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad With an Ancho Vinaigrette May Just Convince You

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Steak, tomatillo, and corn salad. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's always nice to see something you love dearly in a new and exciting situation. I remind my wife Adri of this every time I want to take up a new (and perhaps expensive) hobby. Don't you think the cost of a surfboard is a trifle compared to how excited you'll be to watch me surf? Or: You love me this much now, just think how much you'll love me when I'm pulling pizzas out of our own wood burning oven! Or most recently: What do you mean birdwatching isn't sexy. What could be sexier than an intimate ornithological knowledge?

I, for one, encourage her to try out new things on a near nightly basis.

Here's another thing I love: tomatillos. The tart, green cousins of gooseberries that are an essential part of Mexican cooking. Until recently, I'd almost always eaten them in a cooked-into-salsa form—and I'm guessing that's the way you're most familiar with them as well. They're great simmered into a basic salsa verde, or in a smoky grilled tomatillo salsa. You can fold them into cheesy chicken quesadillas, or whirl 'em up with pork drippings to go along with your crispy carnitas.

But the other day, when I had a dozen ripe tomatillos left over from some recipe testing, it occurred to me that I'd never tried them in the simplest, most obvious way: raw, in a salad. That night, my wife and I had a tomato and tomatillo salad for dinner. We served it up alongside a nice, creamy ball of burrata cheese with some excellent olive oil and a lot of black pepper. It was tasty enough, but those tomatillos, with their ultra-tart, citrusy, almost green apple flavor, cried out for something a little sweeter and richer to go with them.

That's where this recipe comes from: sliced tomatillos tossed with barely-warm steak, along with charred corn, onions, cilantro, and cotija cheese in a light ancho-chili and lime dressing.

Perhaps it's a little derivative, basing a tomatillo salad upon the Mexican flavors it's so closely tied to, but damned if it ain't delicious.

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I start by rubbing a steak with salt and pepper, along with some grated garlic and some ancho chili powder. I happened to have some NY strip steaks on hand during testing, so I used those, but a flank steak, skirt steak, or hanger would all make for excellent steak salads. With warm steak preparations, some fat and gristle on the meat is ok: the fat is nice and soft when warm. With a steak salad, however, it's best to trim that fat off, either before cooking, or, if you prefer, after it's cooked and rested. (If you do it the latter way, you've got yourself and your dogs a nice little treat).

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To keep things streamlined, I use that same grated garlic and ancho chili as the base for a simple vinaigrette made with lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil.

I cook the steak in a mixture of olive oil and butter, turning it frequently. This frequent turning helps it to cook more evenly and rapidly while developing a nicely browned crust (read up more on the science of flipping meat here).

For steak salad, I also tend to cook my meat a little bit more on the rare side than I would if I were eating it warm. In the skillet, I take it to 120°F. After resting (you do rest your meat, right?), it reaches into the 125 to 130°F range.

Once the meat is cooked, I let it rest while I wipe out the skillet and char some corn in it. Corn is one of the few vegetables out there where it's nearly impossible to overcook them. You can slam them in a ripping hot skillet for 10 minutes straight and they'll still retain their fresh sweetness, all while picking up a nicely caramelized, smoky char. It's one of my favorite ways to cook corn indoors, and it's what I do when I want to make Mexican-style esquites (grilled corn salad) when I don't have access to an outdoor grill.

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Once the corn is cooked, the meat will have rested sufficiently to slice into it without fear of losing any juices. Nice and pink is what we're after here.

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For the tomatillos, there's no real trick. All tomatillos have a layer of sticky gunk underneath their husks, but some firm rubbing under running water will get rid of enough of it that it won't pose a problem when you eat the salad.

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I slice the tomatillos in half, then slice those halves into 1/4-inch half moons: about the same size and shape as the pieces of steak.

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The only other ingredients I add are some thinly sliced white onions (I slice them pole-to-pole for the mildest flavor and best texture), some serrano peppers sliced paper thin, a handful of chopped cilantro, and some grated cotija cheese.

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The finished salad is definitely reminiscent of those esquites I mentioned earlier, but with a bit more substance with the grilled steak and the crunchy tomatillos rounding it out.

Now, honey, about those birdwatching lenses...