Although the tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) is just now coming into widespread distribution and use across the United States, it has been known for a couple of centuries in California and for millennia in Mexico, where it was a staple part of the diet in Aztec and Mayan times — it was cultivated even before the tomato — and remains an important food there to this day.
Here in Sonoma County, we know it primarily as a tangy green salsa we love to slather on our tacos, but when you consider its acidic bite, its focused flavor and its meaty texture, you can see that its uses go far beyond blending it into a sauce. There are a few ideas for you in this article, but first, let’s take a closer look at this wonderful fruit.
It’s a member of the genus Physalis, a group of plants whose fruits are enclosed in papery husks. As such, it’s related to the edible ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) and to the delicious Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) as well as to the ornamental Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) that produces poisonous berries and are invasive in the garden, so you should avoid them.
Tomatillos — the name is Spanish for “little tomato” — are usually used green to make salsa verde and mole verde, and to add an acid snap to sauces and Mexican dishes.
If allowed to ripen fully, they acquire a yellow cast and become milder and sweeter with a light citrusy flavor. Then they’re good for chutneys and preserves. There are more than hundred varieties of tomatillos in Mexico, with a wide variety of flavors, colors and sizes, but only seven varieties are sold in the U.S.
A few razor-thin slices of raw, green tomatillos add a mouth-watering essence to salads. Cooked by boiling for three to five minutes, depending on their size, they soften both in texture and flavor. Roasted in a 450-degree oven in their husks for 10 or 15 minutes, they gain concentration of flavor, but be conservative in cooking time. If they go too long, they can burst. Cool, then remove the husks before pureeing.
Nutritionally, 3 ounces of tomatillo supply about a third of our daily requirement of vitamin C plus good stores of magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. They are high in vitamin A’s precursor, beta-carotene, and especially in the antioxidant lutein.
Many tomatillos sold in the United States are grown by Mexican farmers or simply harvested from wild plants, so it’s hard to tell how much, if any, pesticide is used in their production. Some are grown in California, usually without pesticides.
If you spot tomatillos at a farmer’s market this summer, ask the farmer which variety he or she has harvested. Here are some varieties to look for: Indian — good for salsa when green, preserves when ripe; large green — produces fruits up to 3 inches in diameter; purple — small purple fruits with a sharp acid tang; Rendidora — its greenish yellow fruits ripen early; Toma Verde — this new strain is very popular and of top quality.
Give a Mexican twist to Spanish gazpacho by using tomatillos. The dish really rings the flavor bell. It’s best prepared by making the gazpacho and shellfish ahead of time so all are thoroughly chilled by serving time. Dice the radishes and avocado just before serving.