Tomatillos don't grow in my garden. They have, and one year the plants I put in were wildly successful, latching on to everything else. I even lopped off branches because they were so (over) productive. The next time I grew them it was sort of a bust. I can't remember why. But usually, tomatillos are all over the place. And they self-sow, which means my friend Sandra Brown must or should grow them, because she loves the self-sowing vegetable garden. But until recently, when I bought some from Jeanne Williams, I hadn't thought about them in a while. Which is a shame.
They're great tart little fruits, and not at all a relative of a tomato, though historically they're both from the same general area of the world, South and Central America. Tomatillos are related to cape gooseberries, also known as ground cherries. They have neat protective husks, also called calyxes. The husks form first, as green leaves enclosing a small berry, which grows under their protection. When ripe, the husk becomes papery, the fruit swells out to fill it, and turns a pale, yellowish-green, sometimes splitting open the husks.
There is also a tomatillo that is purple -- actually bi-colored, green and purple. According to "Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables" by Benjamin Watson, this variety is called Purple de Milpa, and it grows wild in Mexican cornfields. More about this type a little further on, but Mr. Watson says they make "outstanding salsa."
Peel off the husk. Rinse off the sticky stuff, and tomatillos are ready to use. Mostly in cooking. I prepared an uncooked green salsa, recipe online, which is delicious. Some tomatillo salsa recipes have you simmer them first; some grill them. While I love the simplicity of chucking all the ingredients raw into the food processor, I love the salsa even more made with grilled tomatillos. It is fruitier and thicker, but not quite as fresh-green tasting.
Tomatillos have a clean, tart, limey flavor that really cannot be reproduced by another fruit or vegetable. Green tomatoes are not an adequate substitute. Tomatillos are mostly used in Mexican cooking, perhaps solely. Curious, because there must be other ethnic dishes in which they would shine. Thai? Indian? So I asked some of my food buddies.
Barbara Sibley, whose Arroz Verde recipe I feature here, is chef/owner of a lively Mexican restaurant, La Palapa, on St. Mark's Place in New York City. Raised in Mexico City, she's the expert. Ms. Sibley talked a bit about tomatillo history, and the different names for this little green fruit.
"Tomatillos are really a MesoAmerican food. There is always some confusion as the name for tomatillo is different from area to area -- in Mexico small ones are called tomatillos de milpa, as they often grow wild on the edges of milpas or cornfields. In Mexico they are also often simply tomate and our red tomato is jitomate, but this is different in other countries. In South America (Argentina, for example), tomatillo is the name given to small red tomatoes similar to our cherry tomatoes."
Wow, easy to get confused. But are they eaten in other cuisines?
"They are eaten in all of Central America," said Ms. Sibley. "I find that it is often my tomatillo dishes that remind [restaurant] guests from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras of home. I have eaten Filipino dishes that taste almost as if they have that tomatillo tang, but I don't know enough about the cuisine to be sure."
Jayne Cohen writes mainly about Jewish cuisine, and her recipes, from "The Gefilte Variations" and "Jewish Holiday Cooking," have appeared in the PG food pages.
She said: "I can't think of any cuisines other than Latino and Tex-Mex that use tomatillos ...Maybe [try] using them in an Italian version of salsa verde, since they work so well in Mexican salsas. And, of course, there's always Southeast Asian, where you could use them for the one of the sour-citrusy elements, combined with all the other taste elements."
Ms. Cohen also mused about adding part tomatillos to a green tomato pasta sauce, or "fried with cornmeal and sprinkled with vinegar?"
I guess I'll have to grow them once again and do some experimenting. But I would start them from seed, instead of buying a four- or six-pack at the nursery. You'd have too many plants! This year they would probably have done very well in the heat.
If they don't grow in your garden, and aren't at your farmers market, find them in Reyna in the Strip District. Along with mostly everything else you'll need for a Mexican feast.
I hope at least you'll make the salsa, though the rice and the pork were pretty darn fabulous. The salsa is nice on cheese and crackers, on hamburgers and grilled pork. It's wonderful mashed with an avocado for tomatillo-guacamole. Or spooned onto a folded-over quesadilla, the way I saw it done in Mexico, so simple we didn't know what it was. A freshly made tortilla, warmed in a pan with a filling of cheese, instead of pretending it was pizza.
I am newly enthused about tomatillos. Refreshing and perfect for the dogs days, when like me, you're waiting for the tomatoes. The real ones.
Pork with Chile Verde
- 3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 pounds trimmed, boneless pork shoulder or loin, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 medium sweet white onions, chopped
- 6 jalapeno chiles, chopped, with seeds
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
In Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Season pork with salt and pepper. Brown pork in 3 or 4 batches, turning pieces once, until golden brown. With slotted spoon, transfer batches of browned pork to bowl.
Add onions to pan drippings; reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add chiles, garlic, cumin and oregano; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in tomatillos. Cook, stirring often, until starting to soften, about 5 minutes. (If pan gets too dry, add 1 tablespoon water.)
Return pork and any juices to pan with the remaining water. Bring to boil, stirring to get up browned bits from pan bottom. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until pork is very tender and sauce is richly flavored, 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes. If desired, remove lid and simmer about 10 more minutes, to thicken juices a little. Remove from heat, adjust seasoning, and stir in cilantro.
Makes 4 hearty servings
-- Adapted from "Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day" by Padma Lakshmi, (Weinstein, 2007, $34.95).
Arroz Verde (Green Tomatillo Rice)
This recipe comes from Barbara Sibley, Mexican native and the chef/owner of La Palapa restaurant in New York City's East Village. She prepares this rice at home, and her children love it. Ms. Sibley rinses the rice first, so the grains are more separate, but I chose not to. It's up to you.
- 12 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped ( 1/2 cup)
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons more, for serving
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 large cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 cup long grain white rice (I used organic Texmati)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
In food processor or blender, put tomatillos, onion, 1/2 cup cilantro, water, garlic and cumin. Process until mostly smooth.
In large, heavy saucepan, stir rice and oil. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until rice turns light golden, about 5 minutes. Carefully pour in tomatillo mixture and salt. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to very low. Cover and simmer until rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes, then fluff with fork. Sprinkle with reserved cilantro and serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
-- Barbara Sibley
Tomatillo Salsa or Salsa Verde
Make this with raw or grilled tomatillos. If you're grilling them, pat dry after rinsing. Then place them on a medium-hot grill and cook, turning often with long-handled tongs, until they have a few grill marks and are softer and start to get juicy. Don't grill them too long or you'll lose all the juices. There's no need to quarter grilled ones before processing.
- 12 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed and either left whole and grilled (see above) or quartered if using them raw
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro with some stems
- 1/2 to 1 whole jalapeno, stemmed but not seeded, unless you want a mild salsa
- 1/4 cup cut-up sweet white onion
- 1 small garlic clove, peeled
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Put grilled or quartered, raw tomatillos, cilantro, jalapeno, onion and garlic in food processor and process until nearly smooth. Transfer to serving bowl, stir in lime juice, sugar and salt. Cover and chill until ready to use, or dive right in.
Makes about 1 3/4 cups.
-- Miriam Rubin
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org.