I love to entertain, but hosting a dinner for 8-10 people can get pretty expensive. Between the main course, side dishes, and dessert, the grocery bill can easily run over $100 (and that's a modest calculation when shopping for organic and sustainable food in the Bay Area). But what if you could impress your guests without breaking the bank? Would you believe me if I told you I made a dinner for 9 people that cost under $30?
I didn't plan to spend so little on this dinner party. When I went to the farmers' market and then the butcher I was shopping only to purchase the groceries I needed to make chile verde, a corn and pasilla pepper salad and Mexican rice. I was in the mood for chile verde, a Mexican pork stew made with tomatillos, which is one of my favorite South-of-the-Border dishes. I thought it would be fun to sit in the backyard with friends while eating Mexican food and drinking cerveza. The fact that I spent so little on the meal was a bonus that I'll try to replicate in the future.
If you've never tried chile verde, you are in for a treat when you finally taste it. Chile verde is one of those magical stews that melds together the distinct flavors of a regional area into a unique whole. The tomatillos, onions, and hot peppers roast slowly with the pork, creating a rich and slightly spicy gravy that clings to the succulent and falling apart meat. Served with warm corn tortillas, it's about as good as a stew can get, and inexpensive to boot.
Chile Verde is made using either pork shoulder or butt, which just happens to be one of the cheapest cuts of meat you can purchase. Because it’s a bit fatty and tough, it's a terrible choice for grilling or cooking quickly, but stew it for hours and you have one of the most luscious type of meat available.
Pork shoulder is about $2.99 a pound and you only need 4 lbs for this recipe so your meat tab should be about $12. Add in the tortillas (less than $2 a pack), some rice (also less than $2 for 10 people), corn chips and fresh tomatoes to make homemade salsa (about $5), 2 cans of black beans as a side dish (about $2) and all the veggies needed for the chile verde plus a corn and pepper salad, and you've spent less than $30 for the meal. Obviously the prices of the fruits and vegetables will vary, but because it's summer, most are fairly inexpensive (for instance, I saw five ears of corn for a dollar at the farmers' market the other day).
A delicious yet inexpensive meal with friends: in this economy, that’s a combo I can appreciate.
Makes: Enough for 9 - 10 people
4 lbs pork shoulder cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 pounds tomatillos
2 large white or yellow onions
2 Serrano or Jalapeno peppers (depending on how spicy you want the dish. Serranos are hotter.)
1 cup chicken stock or water
2 Tbsp vegetable oil plus more for broiling vegetables
3 tsp cumin powder (or more if you'd like)
2 Tbsp dried oregano (or more if you'd like)
2 Tbsp flour
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper to taste
1. Cut pork into 1-inch cubes. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tsp cumin, 1 Tbsp oregano, and 1 tsp salt onto the cubed meat and set aside.
2. Sprinkle the flour over the meat and mix everything together so the flour and spices cling to the meat chunks. Set meat in the refrigerator until ready to use.
3. Place your oven on its broiler setting. While oven is heating, peal your onions and slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Dehusk your tomatillos and wash them thoroughly as well. Slice them into 1/4-inch slices as well. You can just slice the smaller tomatillos in half. Slice your Serrano or Jalapeno peppers in half. If you want to reduce some of the heat in the dish, take out the seeds and the inner whitish flesh as these are the real hot parts of the pepper.
4. Drizzle some oil onto a baking sheet and set the onions on top. Flip the onions over so each side has a light coating of oil. Sprinkle with kosher or sea salt. Place pan under the broiler and cook until onions are browned. Be careful not to burn them.
5. Remove the onions from the pan and place them into a bowl. Drizzle a bit more oil onto the pan and lay the tomatillo and pepper slices on top. Season them with some salt and set under the broiler. Cook until they are soft and browned.
6. Place the cooked onions, tomatillos and peppers into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is blended thoroughly but still a bit chunky.
7. Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a large Dutch oven (I prefer one made out of cast iron as it distributes the heat evenly, but this is not necessary). When the oil is hot, evenly distribute a portion of your pork pieces into the pot. Be sure not to add them all at once, or even to crowd the pan, as overcrowding will make the meat steam and we want the pork to sear.
9. Sear the pork pieces on each side until they are slightly crispy and then remove them from the pan. Continue browning in batches until all the pork is seared, adding oil as needed. Note that you are not trying to cook the meat through at this point and that you actually want the inner portion of each cube should to remain uncooked. You are simply searing.
10. Once all the meat is browned, add your chicken stock or water to the pot and then scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula to release the delicious caramelized bits. This will really help to flavor your sauce. Add in the meat and tomatillo mixture along with the rest of your cumin and oregano. I like to crush the dried oregano in my palm before adding it, which helps release its flavors. Add some salt and pepper to taste and stir.
11. At this point you can either set the covered pot in the oven for two hours at 350 degrees (but be sure you use an oven-proof pot and cover), or you can simmer the stew on the stove for 2 hours. Either way, the stew needs to now simmer covered.
12. After about 45 minutes of simmering, stir your stew and add more cumin, oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Recover the pot and place back in the oven or simmer further on the stove for at least another hour and 15 minutes.
13. When stew is thoroughly cooked, with the meat literally falling apart when you touch it and the gravy clinging onto the meat, check your seasoning (adding more salt or pepper if needed; the cumin and oregano should be fine at this point) and serve with warm corn tortillas.