Chef Tom – Chili Verde

Shirley was generous enough to give us her recipes. Her Mexican food restaurant on the main square in Oroville did good business. My dad, my brother and sister, and I, were regulars at Casa Vieja (house of the old woman). Shirley and her brother Chano were always happy to see us. Dad taught the three of us kids to say “Gracias por la cena” which meant thank you for the dinner.

We kids would order Mexican Food 101, which was tacos and enchiladas, and dad would order something a bit more exotic: Chile Verde. It wasn’t chili like chili and cornbread, but chile like fresh chiles, and verde meant green. The dish was a succulent stew made from tender pieces of fatty pork shoulder, long, green, mild California (or Anaheim) chiles, plenty of onions and garlic, and a goodly amount of dried oregano. The broth was pure juice from the pork and the vegetables, thickened with a little flour into a creamy liquid, simmered long enough to render the fat in the well-marbled pork, break down the chiles, and tenderize the meat. The finished dish was spooned onto a warmed plate and served with true refritos – mashed pinto beans that have been cooked in a hot pan of Manteca (pork fat) until a crust forms, some fluffy Spanish rice, and a couple of tender, chewy, hot-off-the-grill handmade flour tortillas.

Mick Herndon

Between his three wives, dad had a string of girlfriends. Shirley, the owner of Casa Vieja, was soon after wife number two (who had decided to live a more bohemian lifestyle than dad wanted, so they split). The two of them romanced over a couple of years until we moved away to Eureka, nearly five hundred miles north. A few years later, dad approached Shirley with the idea of becoming business partners, and together they opened a second Casa Vieja.

In Eureka dad struck a deal with the owners of a local Italian restaurant that had been sitting empty for a few years. The structure sat on a small hill overlooking a stretch of Arcata Bay called the Inner Reach, right behind the famous Carson Mansion.

The Carson Mansion

The property held a two-story Victorian home with three bedrooms upstairs, where my dad and my siblings lived. The downstairs living room area had been converted to a private dining room, the front hall widened into a roomy foyer and the original kitchen and back bedroom were expanded into a full sized commercial kitchen and prep space.

The house was connected to a second, smaller, single-roomed building (which ended up being my bedroom), by a long, wide main dining room that had big glass windows along the two longer sides and a floor covered in two foot square terracotta tiles. A small fountain sat in one corner, and enough tables and chairs to sit thirty people were scattered around the floor. Outside one bank of windows was a small lawn area where our family dentist agreed with dad to park his white burro, which added to the ambience, especially when the old boy would occasionally get excited, giving the entire dining room a rather impressive show.

Shirley got us started, in the first few months making the long trek between Oroville and Eureka, back and forth along Highway 299, a good seven hours one way. Once we got rolling, her trips to Eureka all but stopped. Chano stayed on with us to help train me and my dad in how to prepare the recipes and run the kitchen. Shirley’s aunt Norma, as well as her daughter Lourdes, also came up from Oroville to help. They did odd prep jobs, but their most important one was to make plenty of hand-made flour tortillas.

I was barely twenty and hardly experienced enough to be one of the main cooks, but I held my own, at least for a while. Between dad, Chano and me, we scarcely kept the orders going. The three of us had our own specialties. Dad’s was making the Chile Rellenos, long chilies stuffed with cheese, baked in fluffy egg-white pancakes and covered in a savory tomato-onion sauce. Chano’s specialty was smoking dope and being late, if he showed up at all. My specialty ended up being none other than Shirley’s famous Chile Verde.

I started it off trimming out the pork into one-inch pieces, which always had plenty of fat. I would cut up the extra bits of fat that still had a little meat on them and turn them into crispy chicharones. By frying these bits in their own fat, they turned into salty, savory, fatty little crunchies called chicharones, perfect with a cold Modelo (Mexican beer). The pork would cook for a while as I sliced up a big pile of beautiful, long green California Chilies, discarding the seeds and stems and dumping them, along with a couple of large onions and a few cloves of garlic, sliced thin, into the simmering stew. Then I’d take a nice handful of aromatic Mexican dried oregano, rub the herb hard between my palms to release the oils, and in it would go, along with some salt and pepper. The meat and veggies would give off their juices and the whole thing turned into a homey, soul-satisfying braise that filled the restaurant with a glorious fragrance.

Customers could get Chile Verde with all the fixin’s on a plate (fluffy rice and real refried beans, which are still so hard to find), or they could get a burrito made with one of those amazing tortillas. Our burritos did not have rice and beans in them, they were much thinner because it was just the Chile Verde, nothing else.

I kept as true to her recipe as I could. Over the next few of years, we made Chile Verde for most all of our friends and family, especially for the many parties we threw. It was the one dish everyone asked for again and again. If I didn’t make it, dad would, though at that time his was even more soulful than mine because he knew more about drawing out the flavor of the ingredients than I did. As I matured into a chef, paying extra attention to the quality of ingredients and technique, my version became more deeply flavored and nuanced.

Although it’s been years since I cooked up a batch, to this day, Shirley’s famous Chile Verde is still being talked about by friends who were lucky enough to enjoy it at Casa Vieja, now forty years ago.

Chili Verde

Ingredients:

6 Anaheim (California) chiles

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into rough 1-inch chunks

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 heaping tablespoon of dried oregano (Mexican, if you can find it)

1 large yellow onion, sliced in ¼-inch strips

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

4 cups chicken stock

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Coat the Anaheim chiles in 1 tablespoon of oil and roast in the oven until the skin blisters and the peppers soften, about 20 minutes. Remove the chiles from the oven and allow to cool. Once cooled, stem and seed the chiles, keeping the skin on (if there is some charring on the skin it’s ok). Chop.

Heat the remaining oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the pork and sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until the pork is golden brown all over, about 15 minutes, stirring as needed. Add the oregano and stir well, cooking for another couple of minutes.

Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chiles, onions, and garlic to the oil remaining in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté the vegetables, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pot, until the onions are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until the flour absorbs the excess liquid and is cooked through, about 3 more minutes.

Return the browned pork to the pot along with the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover with the lid. Cook until the pork is tender, about 45 minutes.

Uncover and simmer until the liquid reduces slightly and the flavors concentrate, about 15 more minutes.

Serve with hot, fresh flour tortillas.

=CTH=

Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at www.hippkitchen.com

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