Market Watch: Tomatillos
Though they look like small, green tomatoes encased in papery husks, these tangy little fruits have a flavor all their own. Denser in texture and more acidic than their larger relatives, tomatillos, or “tomates verdes,” have been a staple ingredient in Mexican cooking since Mayan times. In the fairly recent past, all that was available to American cooks were the canned type. But now, from late summer until the first frost, you’re likely to find them in well-stocked grocery stores and farmer’s markets. The most common variety ranges from size from a walnut to a golf ball and is light to bright green in color. If you’re lucky, you might happen on a more unusual type, such as the pineapple tomatillo, with its sweet, bright flavor, or the beautiful purple tomatillo.
Tomatillos are an excellent source of soluble fiber and are packed with vitamins C, K, and potassium. They are rich in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect your vision and prevent macular degeneration. What’s more, they contain a mere 42 calories per cup.
Choose firm tomatillos that have grown to fill their husks; if the husk is larger than the fruit, they are not fully mature. The papery husks should be green or light brown and fresh looking, not shriveled. It’s fine to store tomatillos at room temperature for a few days before using. For longer storage, place in a paper bag and refrigerate up to a week. Before using, remove the husks, and rinse off the sticky residue left behind under cold, running water.
What to Do with Tomatillos
Even if you’ve never seen a fresh tomatillo, you’ve probably consumed them in the form of green salsa—or salsa verde—with a basket of tortilla chips. Made from roasted tomatillos, chiles, onions, and cilantro, salsa verde is a cinch to make at home. It’s also incredibly versatile. Try it on scrambled eggs, topped with crumbled queso fresco, or spoon over grilled white fish or chicken. It also makes a great base for a summery soup: In a blender, whizz equal parts salsa verde and ripe avocados until smooth, then thin with freshly squeezed orange juice and serve topped with torn basil leaves.
Tomatillos are a perfect match with all things green — lime juice and cilantro being the most common partners. A more complex sauce with a rich, smoky flavor that is a perfect counterpoint to chicken or pork is pipian — made from green poblano peppers and roasted pumpkin seeds (see recipes, below). Avocados are another favorite partner. Some Mexican chefs swear by adding tomatillos to guacamole in place of lime juice for that sour note.
Though most Mexican recipes call for roasting or otherwise cooking tomatillos to mellow their flavor and bring out their sweetness, you can also use them raw. To make a bright green salsa with an acidic bite, simply puree a pound of quartered tomatillos with coarsely chopped onion, garlic, minced Serrano pepper and fresh cilantro leaves and season with salt and sugar to taste.
Though most of the recipes you’ll find for tomatillos come from Latin America, there are plenty of other creative uses for them. Thinly sliced tomatillos and red tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, chopped red onions, and fresh mint make a gorgeous salad. They also pair well with other acidic ingredients, like buttermilk and yogurt. For a refreshing soup, puree equal amounts of raw tomatillos and cucumbers, along with some scallions, garlic, lemon juice and salt to taste. Puree with buttermilk or yogurt and serve chilled.
If you find yourself with a large number of tomatillos (like anybody who has ever tried growing these prolific fruits), you might even try making them into a savory jam. High in pectin, tomatillos can be substituted for green tomatoes in your favorite recipe.
Here are a few ideas to get you cooking: