Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Tomatillos

Some people find kitchen prep work drudgery, but I find it oddly relaxing, the repetitive nature of chopping or peeling soothing in its monotony. I have two favorite prep tasks in the kitchen: one is chopping mushrooms (there is something so satisfying about the way the knife feels as it slices through the caps) and the other is peeling the husks off tomatillos. I love the way the papery husks feel as I pull them from the fruit. I like that funny, sticky feeling the tomatillo skins reveal after peeling off the husks. I like the weirdness of tomatillos, the strangeness of the husks and the way the raw fruit smells before you cook it (sweet, herbal, grassy). I admit I make Mexican salsa verde almost every time I bring home tomatillos from the market, but my culinary tomatillo habit is a delicious one, because green tomatillo sauce can be spooned onto just about everything (tacos, enchiladas, fish, meat, veggies) that can benefit from the fruit’s zingy nature. (But read on for ways to bust out of the salsa verde rut!)

A Brief History

Tomatillos are native to Mexico, where the fruit has been grown for millennia: evidence of tomatillo eating has been documented as early as 900 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs, no strangers to good eating (they are responsible for introducing chocolate, chilies, turkey and lots of other delicious things to the rest of the world) were likely the first to domesticate the little papery husked fruits, even before tomatoes were first cultivated. Although tomatillos have never achieved the global culinary reach of other famous Aztec cultivars – tomatoes, chilies and corn spread like wildfire across the globe almost immediately – tomatillos are still ubiquitous in many modern Mexican dishes. (Mexican cuisine authority Diana Kennedy says that tomatillos are "an indispensible ingredient in Mexican food.") Tomatillos were primarily available canned – not fresh – up until about a decade ago, says chef Rick Bayless, in his book Mexican Kitchen. Fortunately, these days, tomatillos are available fresh in many markets.

Factual Nibbles

  • Tomatillos go by many names, including Mexican green tomatoes (or tomate verde in Spanish), husk tomatoes and jamberries. (The word tomatillo means 'little tomato.') Miltomatl is the original Nahuatl (Aztec) word for tomatillo – and according to Kennedy, is still used in Oaxaca to describe the fruit.
  • The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink notes that the word "tomatillo" has only been in print in English since around 1910.
  • As Diana Kennedy notes in her book, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, a tiny variety of tomatillo still grows wild in cornfields in Mexico; Rick Bayless says that these tomatillos are highly valued in Oaxaca "for their intensely sweet-tart, deeply complex flavor." Called miltomates, they are difficult to find outside of Mexico.

Cultivation

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa or P.philadelphica) are in the fascinating and economically important nightshade (Solanaceae) family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers and even tobacco, although the fruit’s closest relatives are cape gooseberries (P.peruviana) and ground cherries (P.pruinosa). Tomatillos grow inside a papery husk, formed from the flower calyx, which helps to protect the fruit as it grows. The plants are usually cultivated as annuals, although in some places they are short-lived perennials. And unlike their tomato cousins, tomatillos are generally not self-pollinating, which means that they require more than one plant in order to set fruit.

Seasonality

Tomatillos are now available nearly year-round, frequently imported from Mexico (their ability to store for long periods of time helps). However, tomatillos are a warm-weather plant, so their peak local availability in most parts of North America is in the summer, usually from July through September.

Environmental Impact

Fortunately, tomatillos don’t appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Their environmental impact is likely lessened by their relative lack of popularity and because tomatillo plants are less susceptible to pests than some of their other nightshade cousins. However, pesticides are used on the fruit, so if you are concerned, choose organic tomatillos or talk to your local tomatillo farmer about his/her growing practices.

Characteristics

Herbal, tangy, citrus-y, and a little bit sweet, tomatillos are like no other fruit. The vast majority of tomatillos available in North America are one to two inches in diameter, with plump, bright green fruit surrounded by a papery husk. (There are, however, many varieties of tomatillos showing up more regularly at markets, like beautiful purple and yellow cultivars.) Once the husk has been peeled away, the fruit is covered in a lightly sticky substance that is easily washed off. Tomatillos have thin skins that do not need to be peeled, and dense flesh that contains lots of little seeds.

What to Look For

In general, look for tomatillos that have grown to fill their husks. If purchasing green tomatillos, check to make sure that the fruit hasn’t turned yellow – this is a sign of over-ripeness. The husk should be fairly pliant and not completely dried out. Feel the fruit inside the husk with your fingers to make sure they are plump. If the husks have split, exposing the fruit (this is OK), make sure the skins are glossy, without black or brown spots.

Nutrition

Tomatillos may be delicious, but they aren’t super nutrient-dense. (I don’t mean to sell them short, but kale they are not.) They do have quite a bit of Vitamin C and are good sources of Vitamin K and niacin, and are good sources of zeaxanthin and lutein, both necessary for eye health. They are also fairly high in fiber and low in calories.

What to Do with It

Tomatillos can be eaten raw, but more commonly they are roasted or simmered in water to bring out their natural sweetness. Mexican cooks commonly roast the fruit on a comal, a flat griddle used on the stovetop. Tomatillos are most closely associated with Mexican and Central American cuisine (including Guatemalan), but the fruit has also made its way to India, where it shows up in chutneys, curries and dals.

Cooking

Tomatillos are classically paired with green chiles in Mexican cuisine, serving as a sweet-tart counterbalance to the heat of the peppers. The most famous of this combo is Mexican salsa verde, which usually contains tomatillos, green chiles and onion (sometimes garlic and cilantro, too) and is commonly served with meat and shellfish dishes (especially pork, chicken and shrimp) and as a sauce for enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican fare. Tomatillos’ sweet-tart flavor can be an interesting addition to classic dishes – like this fettuccini with tomatillo pesto or this tomatillo, tomato and avocado gazpacho. (And fried tomatillos sound even better than their fried green tomato cousins!)

Getting even more creative, tomatillos can be used in sweet dishes, too. Frequently paired with cinnamon, the fruit is made into jams (recipe in the preservation section, below), tarts and pies.

Storage

Tomatillos keep for a long time in the fridge. The can be stored in a paper bag in your produce drawer (leave them in their papery husks) for 2-3 weeks.

Pro Tips

I usually roast whole tomatillos under the broiler, a trick I picked up from Rick Bayless in his Mexican Kitchen cookbook. Roasting them this way is easier to clean up then roasting them on the stovetop, quick and very nicely concentrates the fruits’ flavors – bringing out notes of caramel and smoke to pair with tomatillos’ natural tanginess. To roast under the broiler, line a shallow, rimmed (this is important, as lots of juice will run out of the fruit) baking sheet with foil. Add the tomatillos to the baking sheet and place it under a preheated broiler. Roast until the tomatillos’ skins blacken and they become soft, about 4-5 minutes, then gently flip over and roast for another 3-4 minutes.

Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Through Preservation

Making chutney is a good way to preserve tomatillos; this delicious-sounding chutney will probably keep for weeks in the fridge. You can also freeze tomatillos whole for later use – just put the fruit on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer until completely frozen, then transfer to zip-top plastic freezer bags.

Like tomatoes, tomatillos can also be canned whole; or make a big batch of tomatillo salsa and can that for the dead of winter when all you have on hand is parsnips and you’re dying for a taste of summer. But what I’m most excited about is this tomatillo and lime jam – tomatillos are rich in natural pectin, perfect for jam making!

Recipes

Raw Tomatillo and Tomato Salsa
Raw tomatillos have a fruity, herbal quality that is quite different from their cooked flavor. I’ve paired them with their cousins, tomatoes, to make a salsa that is delicious with fish, shellfish and chicken, or scooped up with tortilla chips. Seed and core the jalapeño to reduce the heat; you can also toss in a little cilantro if you like. 

2 medium tomatillos, husked, rinsed and diced
1 large, ripe plum tomato, cored and diced
1 medium jalapeño, diced very fine
Pinch of kosher salt
Pinch of sugar
Juice of 12 lime

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Let the flavors meld for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Spiced Tomatillo Syrup
If you’ve never tried tomatillos in a sweet dish, you’re in for a treat. The fruit pairs deliciously with cinnamon and sugar; cooked down into a syrup, it is excellent with creamy desserts like vanilla ice cream and cheesecake. Or top yogurt with the syrup, or stir a few tablespoons into a glass of seltzer with lime juice for a unique soda. This syrup would also be excellent with a few drops of rum stirred in! 

1 pound tomatillos (about 5 medium), husked and rinsed
12 cup sugar (I prefer raw sugar)
1 cinnamon stick
1 green cardamom pod
13 cup water

Method:
1. Quarter tomatillos. Combine all ingredients in a medium, heavy saucepan.
2. Place saucepan over medium heat and simmer until tomatillos are very soft and the liquid has reduced slightly, about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly.
3. Blend using a hand blender (or in a regular blender). Strain the seeds out if they bother you using a fine meshed strainer. (I left them in.) Let cool slightly; the syrup thickens as it cools.

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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