We tried growing tomatillos once years ago, but we didn’t know what we were getting into. We thought we’d have tame, manageable plants, kind of like tomatoes.
We were wrong. The tomatillo plants grew huge and crazy, and since we’d planted them in front of shorter things, we ended up (gasp) yanking them out of the ground before they could produce anything.
I know. Shameful. But we were relative novices then, and skittish. This year, armed with experience, confidence and more garden space, we tried again.
This year we planted tomatillos where they could grow crazily without blocking the sun from their shorter neighbors.
Our trying again was rewarded. We’ve got tomatillos up the proverbial wazoo this year, and OH are we glad we revisited this fabulous fruit!
Tomatillos are, like tomatoes, members of the nightshade family, but tomatillos are not, despite the similarity in the words, just little tomatoes.
Here’s a little peek into the world of the tomatillo.
First of all, I’ve heard, and read, that tomatillos are “self-incompatible.” Sometimes I feel that I, too, am self-incompatible, but that’s what a good book, a long walk, or some talk therapy is for. Tomatillos, alas, can’t read, walk, or talk it out. They also don’t (at least according to what I’ve read) properly pollinate flying solo. So if you want tomatillos, you need two plants. But I know I’ve had comments from people who got fruit with only one plant…so maybe, like our lizard, they can reproduce just fine solo when they want to.
Anyway, here’s how it goes. You plant your seeds, you feed them, water them, provide proper light and love, and they grow big and strong.
They flower. The flower looks like this:
Petite and yellow.
After a few days of petite yellowness, the flower itself begins to die, but – BUT! – the calyx (the green leaf-like part at the base of the flower) continues to grow! Cool, huh?
The dead flower drops off, and inside the now womb-like calyx, a little fruit is growing.
The calyx sort of seals itself off as it grows, protecting the little fruit from pests and nosy strangers.
The calyx also grows faster than the tomatillo, so even though the green husk may look about the right size, if you gently squeeze it early on in the growing phase, you’ll discover that the tomatillo inside is still very small.
You might also get slapped, so please, ask permission before you go around squeezing tomatillo husks that you haven’t been properly introduced to.
Anyway, the little tomatillo grows and grows, and eventually the little tyke grows so big that the husk splits open (makes me glad to be a mammal!) and you can finally see the beautiful green tomatillo.
Now, the other day I was cutting up green tomatoes for a green tomato jam I wanted to make, (more on that another day), and I noticed that VERY green tomatoes, or “young” green, as I’ve started calling them, are similar in texture to tomatillos, kind of.
They’re still different, but there was a kind of crisp, dry element that they shared, compared to the juicy innards of an “older” green tomato – one that will start turning color soon.
And since I found it interesting, I thought you might, too. So I picked a tomatillo, a young green tomato (though not as young as I’d have liked, but still, sometimes it’s hard to tell), and an older green tomato.
Here they are:
Let’s compare and contrast, shall we? The tomatillo is ripe and ready, as evidenced by the split husk and the gorgeous bright green color. The tomato in the middle is young and not ready at all, unless you WANT an unripe tomato for something (like jam, or chutney, or salsa). And the tomato on the right – actually a cherry tomato – is a darker green with hints of orange because, if left on the vine instead of cruelly sacrificed for my own selfish plans, it would have turned orange and then red over the course of about a week.
Here they are again:
Sans husk, the tomatillo looks very much like a green tomato.
Now comes the cruel part, all in the interest of science. Or blog traffic. It’s time to cut them open.
The tomatillo (on the left, in case you’re just tuning in) has a dense, (crisp, actually) white center that contains the seeds. The tomatoes, as you can see, have smaller white areas and the seeds themselves are surrounded by juice. Some tomatoes are fleshier, or meatier, and some are juicier. Either way, they are quite different from the tomatillo.
One final look at the innards. The tomatillo’s insides remain solid, even when you heartlessly rip them out. The tomatoes, both young and old, will fall apart, though the young, and very young, tomato innards will stay more tightly clumped together than the older green ones.
And that’s the end of my little lesson on tomatillos, or whatever that was.
OH – flavor! Tomatillos are kind of sweet/tart and remind me a bit of Granny Smith apples, both in texture and flavor. The young green tomatoes – minus the seeds, which are bitter – reminded Bill of green peppers and reminded me of tomatillos or slightly tart apples. (Older green tomatoes remind me of red tomatoes, only not as fully flavored. Older green tomatoes are the adolescents of the tomato world. They think they’re adults, but they haven’t had enough life experience to really be taken seriously.) (Or something like that.)
I think it’s time to get back to making salsa, don’t you?
Okay. I got this Salsa Verde recipe from Rick Bayless’s book Mexico: One Plate at a Time. He offers two salsa recipes, actually – one fresh/raw, and one roasted.
We both, Bill and I, without even discussing it first, wanted to try the roasted version first.
Here’s how Mr. Bayless describes them:
Whether you choose the verdant, slushy, herby freshness of the all-raw tomatillo salsa or the olive-colored, voluptuous, sweet-sour richness of the roasted version, tomatillos are about brightening tang. The buzz of fresh hot green chile adds thrill, all of which adds up to a condiment most of us simply don’t want to live without.
We make fresh tomato salsas all through the tomato season, and we love all the bright flavors and crunch…but come on - “voluptuous, sweet-sour richness” – ??? How can you NOT go there?
And it’s so easy….
First, peel and rinse the tomatillos.
I used thirteen. The recipe calls for 5-6 and I figured I’d double the recipe, because we love salsa here, but in the future, I’ll probably quadruple it – it’s THAT GOOD. (Even ask my kids!)
I put the tomatillos and a fresh jalapeno pepper and the remainder of another hot green pepper (looks like a cayenne, I think) Bill had picked or bought or found by the side of the road all on a baking sheet.
Then I put them under the broiler.
About five minutes on each side, until they looked like this:
The fragrance! Smoky and tangy.
I let the tomatillos and peppers cool to room temperature, and then I scraped them and their oozing juices into the food processor.
I added chopped cilantro and a little water…
And blended them, as Mr. Bayless directs, “into a coarse puree.”
I scraped that mixture into a bowl, added some chopped onion, and – DONE!
Then I took maybe five pictures of the final product while Bill stood there exhaling loudly and impatiently and all but tapping his foot and looking at his watch. He finally shoved me aside (okay, not really, but I’m pretty certain he really wanted to) and we dug in.
Voluptuous it was! Soooo, good. Silky and crunchy and smoky and slightly tangy and bright with the fresh cilantro and the bite of the onion…a pleasant heat from the chiles…this was delicious.
Alex and Julia helped Bill and me make all too short work of our new favorite salsa in the universe.
Bill made a batch outside in the garage during Hurricane Irene, using our little propane camping grill to roast the tomatillos and chiles.
And he made ANOTHER batch the next day because we still didn’t have power back. That’s right, it’s so good severe weather could not keep us from making and eating it.
Oh, and we’ve decided to ALWAYS grow tomatillos for the rest of our lives. Just so we can make this roasted salsa verde a LOT.
Here’s how we make it:
Roasted Tomatillo and Jalapeno Salsa
Makes about 2 cups, which won’t be enough, really, so you should probably double the recipe right off the bat.
12-14 tomatillos, husked, rinsed
2 fresh jalapenos, stems removed
About half a cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 small white onion, chopped
salt to taste
What to do:
Place tomatillos and chiles on a baking sheet and roast under the broiler (oven rack should be on the top or second-to-top rack) for about five minutes on each side. The skins will blacken in spots and the bright green colors will change to olive.
(You could also grill them, but some of the juice will escape, or you could put them in a cast iron pan ON your grill and catch all that juice.)
Allow tomatillos and chiles to cool, then scrape everything, including juices, into your food processor. Add cilantro and about 1/3 cup of water. Puree until not quite smooth. You still want texture.
Scrape mixture into a bowl, stir in onions, add salt to taste, and you’re done!