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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.

Green Gazpacho with Shellfish

Makes 4 servings

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cups onion, diced

2 poblano peppers, de-stemmed and diced

8 tomatillos, husks removed and quartered

2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced

1 bunch scallions, washed and chopped

1 bunch cilantro, washed, de-stemmed, coarsely chopped

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

½ teaspoon ground cumin

— Juice of 6 limes

— Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

— Dash of Tabasco sauce

12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and sauteed

8 ounces cooked lump crabmeat or lobster tail, chopped

2 radishes, finely diced

1 small ripe avocado, pitted, peeled and diced

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil to medium-hot in a skillet. When hot, add the onion, poblanos and tomatillos. Toss and cook for about three to four minutes, until the vegetables are wilting and the tomatillos are starting to break down.

Remove from the heat, let cool for a few minutes, then spoon into a blender and pulse to mix. Take 2 tablespoons of the diced cucumber and dice it more finely. Reserve this for garnish.

Add the scallions, remaining cucumbers, cilantro, jalapeno, garlic, cumin, half the lime juice, salt, pepper, Tabasco and the remaining olive oil to the blender and pulse to a slightly lumpy consistency, rather than a smooth puree. Taste and add more lime juice if it needs more tang. Pour into a container and chill.

Sauté the shrimp. Pick the crabmeat or chop the lobster and mix all the shellfish with the remaining lime juice and a dash of olive oil and chill.

To serve, pit, peel and dice the avocado and finely dice the radishes. Place 6 ounces — about 3/4 cup — of the gazpacho in each soup bowl. Place 2 ounces of the crabmeat or lobster in the center and three of the shrimp around that. Sprinkle with the small dice of avocado, cucumber and radish.

This spicy green sauce is a specialty of Michoacan on Mexico’s west coast. It’s particularly good as an accompaniment to chicken, and the tomatillos’ tanginess adds zing to ocean fish like seared ahi and black grouper. I dump it on soft tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, and sometimes on grilled steak.

Salsa Verde

Makes about 1½ cups

8-10 tomatillos (about 2/3 pound), husks removed

5 fresh serrano chiles

1 pickled serrano chile, seeds and stem removed

1 tablespoon vinegar from the pickled chile

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 avocado, pitted, peeled, and cubed

½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro

1/3 cup finely chopped onion

½ teaspoon sea salt

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the fresh chiles and cook for five minutes. Add the tomatillos. After three minutes, remove and drain the chiles and tomatillos.

De-stem the chiles. In a blender, puree the chiles, tomatillos, garlic, pickled chile, pickling vinegar and salt.

When pureed, add the cilantro and blend with two- or three two-second bursts. Transfer the puree to a serving bowl, add the onion and avocado, and mix. Serve immediately. If you plan to serve it later, refrigerate the puree and add the onion and avocado just before serving.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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