Before I delve into the specifics of my recipe for chile verde con cerdo, the classic Mexican stew of pork simmered in a tangy tomatillo and green chile sauce, I have a secret to share: When it comes to braising meat, all recipes work more or less the same way.
Of course, I’m not talking about specific ingredients. American pot roast, daube Provençal, and pork vindaloo are made with completely different seasonings and taste nothing alike. But if you look closely at how each dish is put together, the processes have the same basic approach: Brown the meat to build a flavorful fond, add a modest amount of liquid, cover the pot, and simmer it all gently until the meat is tender and the liquid has reduced to a concentrated, deeply savory sauce.
The beauty of this universal framework is that once you know how it works, you can make countless variations. Tuscan peposo. Chinese red-cooked beef. Hungarian goulash. Even if you’re not familiar with a particular braise, you have a road map for how to make it-—a pretty powerful culinary tool.
That’s where I started with my recipe for chile verde. When I applied the basic formula along with a handful of the test kitchen’s best braising practices, I found my way to a dish of tender pork cloaked in a vibrant, meaty sauce—perfect for serving alongside rice or tucking into warm tortillas.
Fat-streaked, collagen-rich boneless pork butt roast is almost always the cut used in this chili; during cooking, the collagen breaks down into gelatin that turns the pork supple. I trimmed a roughly 4-pound roast, cut it into 1½-inch chunks (which would be as easy to eat wrapped in a tortilla as from a fork), and seasoned it with kosher salt to help it stay juicy. I didn’t brown the pieces; we often forgo that step when meat sitting above the surface of the liquid will brown during braising (as it would here) and/or when a sauce has so much flavor that a lack of browning isn’t noticeable. Skipping browning saves time and prevents the meat’s exterior from drying out.
Charring the vegetables, a common step in preparing chile verde, concentrates their flavors and imbues them with a pleasant touch of bitterness. So while the salted pork rested, I loaded up a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet with tomatillos (husked, rinsed, and dried), moderately spicy poblano chiles (stemmed, halved, and seeded), a large onion (cut through the root end into wedges), and a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves. I drizzled the vegetables with oil and slid the sheet under the broiler for about 10 minutes.
When the vegetables were charred, I peeled the chiles and garlic, discarding the skins (there was no need to peel the thin-skinned tomatillos), and blitzed everything in a food processor until it formed a rough puree. Then I sautéed some oregano and cumin in a Dutch oven before adding the salsa, pork, and a few cups of chicken broth blended with water; bringing it all to a simmer; and braising the mixture gently in the oven.
The pork turned nicely tender after 90 minutes, but the liquid remained thin even after I cooked the chili for another hour. Plus, it tasted sharp and lacked the meaty backbone that any chili should have.
The savory flavor produced by browning would balance the acidity nicely, but I had a workaround that allowed me to leave the stew meat alone: browning the pork trimmings instead. It’s a trick we’ve used when we want to build fond without subjecting the meat to a hard sear.
I placed the trimmings (chopped coarse to maximize their surface area) in a Dutch oven with a cup of water and brought the mixture to a simmer. Strange as that sounds, we’ve found that you can produce a much richer fond by simmering the meat first, since the liquid extracts meat juices and fat much more thoroughly than searing does; when the liquid evaporates, the bottom of the pot is coated with a substantial layer of fond.
Built on that rich layer of fond, the chili tasted noticeably meatier. In fact, a good bit of browning had accumulated on the interior walls of the pot, too. Letting the pot sit covered after braising trapped steam that loosened that “side fond” so that I could scrape every last bit into the chili. But the chili’s consistency was still so soupy that the pork pieces floated in it like little icebergs.
Clearly, there was too much liquid in the pot, so I incrementally decreased the amounts of broth and water I was adding—until I eliminated both altogether. The salsa alone made a fine braising liquid and reduced to a tight, concentrated sauce by the time the meat was tender. The pectin-rich tomatillos helped, too, thickening the sauce as it cooked.
I tweaked the flavors, adding a jalapeño for more distinct but measured heat; bay leaves for herbal depth; cinnamon, cloves, and sugar for subtle warmth and sweetness; and minced cilantro for freshness.
The contrast between the rich pork and the tangy, spicy sauce reminded me why chile verde is one of the world’s greatest braises, and I was gratified to think that my new-school method had made it even more efficient.