Tomatillos (toh-mah-TEE-yohs) are the great-grandfathers of what we know as modern day tomatoes. Members of the nightshade family, the tomatillo - Physalis philadelphica – is now a different genus than tomatoes and more closely related to the aguaymanto.
This plant has its roots in Mexico where the Aztecs cultivated them as early as 800 BC. Tomatillos traveled to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors where they were first mistaken as a new kind of ….eggplant! Nightshade plants were known to be poisonous so some local farmer in Spain must have had to take some creative license with the genus of the plant in order to get the sale done. Good thing, however, as eventually the ripened yellow tomatillo was cultivated into a bright red fruit called “jitomate” – our much loved tomato. Tomatillos are also called “jam berries”, “Mexican cherries” or “husk cherries”, but in Mexico they are rightly called “tomate”.
The beautiful tomatillos here at Sub Edge range in color from bright green, to purple, to nearly black. This is just indicative of the various varieties of plants – the flavor is almost uniformly the same. Tomatillos taste a bit like green tomatoes with a bright lemony kick and they have a sturdier core to them than tomatoes do. They are not spicy themselves, but like tomatoes, benefit from a bit of “kick” added to their preparation. Essentially anything you can do with green tomatoes, you can do with a tomatillo. They are all a wonderful crisp bite of summer!
When I first moved from California to Connecticut I very much missed some of the wonderful Hispanic foods that were readily available to me in the Bay Area. As I often do, I decided to try to re-create one of my most favorite taquería stands “enchiladas verdes” – chicken enchiladas covered in a sassy and tart tomatillo salsa and sprinkled with cotija cheese. I headed off to my local supermarket with high hopes. Alas, there were no tomatillos to be found. I thought to ask the produce stocker about what might be in the back. His confused response? He pointed me to the tomatoes and informed me they didn’t sell green ones “because they’re not ripe yet”. Sadly I knew that I wasn’t going to be making enchiladas verdes - that night anyway. Fortunately we’ve come a long way since 2000 and tomatillos are a bit more mainstream than they once were.
Tomatillos grow in a beautiful paper-lantern like husk and when ripe, the husk bursts open to reveal a slightly sticky fruit. The husk is not edible, and the fruit should be rinsed of the husk residue before eating. Tomatillos can be eaten fried, steamed, baked, even sliced raw. Their high levels of pectin make them an excellent candidate for canning or making into jam. Wouldn’t that be nice over a piece of fresh corn bread alongside a big bowl of chili come February?