Jane Says: Don't Be Intimidated By Tomatillos

Those papery husks contain a surprisingly versatile tomatillo. (Photo: Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Why are tomatillos not really used much? Grew some this summer and love the raw fruit!” —Deena Matthews

That is a very good question. Tomatillos (tom-ah-tee-yos), a great, easy-to-grow addition to many gardens, add a fruity, almost citrusy, tartness to all sorts of dishes, including soups, stews, seafood dishes, and, of course, salsas.

Tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish, and you’ll often hear one called a Mexican husk tomato or green tomato (a.k.a. tomate verde). But one look at the parchmentlike calyx, or husk, that encloses the fruit will tell you it’s more closely related to the Cape gooseberry, the groundcherry, and the ornamental Chinese lantern plant than it is to your garden-variety beefsteak.

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The tomatillo originated in Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala, where it has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years; it was a staple, in fact, of the Aztec and Mayan economies, according to sources such as America’s First Cuisines, by Sophie D. Coe, and Fruits of Warm Climates, by Julia F. Morton.

Morton goes on to say that before 1863, the tomatillo “was thoroughly naturalized and commonly growing in abundance in the far west of the United States.” In a 1945 example of marketing legerdemain, the American Fruit Growers publicized California tomatillos under the name “Jamberry,” Morton explains, “as a new fruit introduced by scientists at Iowa State College.” And according to William Woys Weaver, author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, the seeds of the Huberschmidt groundcherry, distributed by the Landis Valley Museum, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are likely a variant form of this variety.

Weaver thinks one reason for tomatillos’ lack of popularity is that unlike tomatoes, they aren’t eaten out of hand. “You have to cook them or process them in some way, like salsa, for example,” he said. There is also the funky aroma of the ripe fruit. “It’s not hard to mask with cilantro or hot peppers,” Weaver added. “But lots of people don’t like cilantro or can’t eat hot peppers.”

That all makes sense to me, but I’d add one more factor—their consistency when processed. A quick whizz in the blender turns them viscous, and that texture, as any okra connoisseur knows, is not for everybody. But not only does that quality give great body to soups and sauces, it somehow extends and balances the fruit’s complex acidity throughout an entire dish.

Tomatillos are in season right now, and you can find them at specialty produce shops, most supermarkets, and at many farmers markets. Look for glossy, plump specimens that fill their husks, and know that the tighter the husks, the fresher the tomatillos. They are great keepers, by the way; refrigerate the unhusked fruits in a brown paper sack, and they will last a good two or three weeks in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to use them, pull off their husks and rinse off their signature stickiness.

Anyone who wants to get the best out of tomatillos should pick up a copy of Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. His recipe for Essential Simmered Tomatillo-Serrano Sauce—one of the most versatile, irresistible sauces you’ll ever come across—is worth the price of the book alone. And because I first had tomatillos at Katharine Kagel’s fabulous Cafe Pasqual’s, in Santa Fe, I’m a sucker for the chicken-tomatillo soup from her Cafe Pasqual’s Cookbook.

If you are not in the mood to cook, however, then what you need is an ultrafresh green salsa. Below, you’ll find my new favorite recipe, from Shelley Wiseman, a good friend and former Gourmet colleague. Her book Just Tacos: 100 Delicious Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner came out about a year ago and it’s full of recipes I want to live on.

Fresh Green Salsa

From Just Tacos, by Shelley Wiseman (Taunton Press, 2011)

Makes 1½ cups

Because all the ingredients are raw, this salsa has a lovely vibrant flavor that must be enjoyed the same day it is made.

½ pound tomatillos (5 to 6), husked, rinsed, and quartered

½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro

1 large scallion, white and green parts, coarsely chopped

1 fresh serrano or jalapeño chile, coarsely chopped

1 medium garlic clove

½ teaspoon salt; more as desired

Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend until finely chopped or smooth. Season it taste with additional salt.

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