Autumn brings the final ripening of the garden, and tomatillos are at their sweetest-best as the vines begin to decline. Tomatillos, or “husk tomatoes,” are native to Mexico and have been cultivated since pre-Columbian times. A member of the nightshade family (Physalis), they grow wild throughout the Americas except in the coldest zones, as they don’t tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees very well.
Ranging in color from emerald green to bright yellow and purple, in flavor from tart to sweet, and in size from cherry tomato large plum, they are extremely versatile. They are eaten raw and in many cooked dishes such as salsa verde, and have been a staple in Mexican and South America cuisine for centuries.
There are myths regarding ground cherries being poisonous, but most plant experts agree that they are not. They seem to have a low level of toxicity when unripe and at this stage, they emit a very bitter aftertaste.
Tomatillos are ripe when the fruit has expanded to fill the husk, and they begin to lighten in color. They grow in a sprawling, branching habit, tending to take more than their share of room in a garden setting, so it is best to stake them when small. They are not fussy about soils and only use moderate water. In the Pacific Northwest, they do well in a sunny garden spot and only need deep watering during the hottest days.
When you pick them from the garden or purchase at the market, chose tomatillos with the papery husk intact. It can be split, but should still be wrapped around the fruit.
They can be stored at room temperature for two or three days, or up to a week in the refrigerator. When ready to prepare for a recipe, remove the husks and rinse the tomatillos in cool water to eliminate the sticky coating on the skin.
These interesting fruits are versatile enough to use in a large variety of recipes, from beverages to desserts, appetizers and main dishes. A few examples of recipes available online include a cocktail named “Tomatillo Mary,” green chili pozole, green chicken enchiladas, ceviche; tomatillo dessert tarts and, of course, salsa verde.
On a recent weekend visit to a small family farm, we picked a bucket of tomatillos and made salsa verde to include in a “South of the Border” meal we made, but also canned several jars for later use. The tomatillos we used were very large and very ripe, with a much sweeter, almost tomato-like taste.
Unable to find fresh mild chili peppers at the market, we used canned chilis in our recipe. The result is a very mild salsa, full of flavor from the other ingredients, but suitable for use in any recipe where a spicier flavor might be objectionable. Fresh jalapeños can be used for those who prefer a hot chili flavor.
Makes about six half-pint jars
- 5 pounds ripe tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 1 large Spanish onion finely chopped
- 3 8-ounce cans chopped green chilies (undrained)
- 8 garlic cloves, crushed in garlic press
- 1/3 cup lime juice
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tbsp non-iodized salt
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
Cut tomatillos into 8 chunks. Place all ingredients into large pot. Heat slowly to the boiling point, stirring occasionally.
Simmer until mixture is about 1/3 reduced and thickened to salsa consistency. Using a potato masher, blender or stick blender, crush tomatillos into salsa.
Cool and refrigerate.