At first glance, tomatillos might look like festive paper lanterns, readytobestrung with lights for an outdoor gala. But beneath the party dress — that almost-sheer, brown-green husk veined like a congested city road map —lies a fruit packed with endless culinary potential.
Apale globe that looks like a tiny green tomato is the prize inside, and in fact, tomatillo (pronounced toe-mah-TEE-yoh) is Spanish for small tomato.
But it isn’t a tomato. A member of the nightshade family, it’s related to tomatoes, along with ground cherries and cape gooseberries.
Tomatillos have a wake-up taste, like apples drizzled with lemon juice, but with a pleasing, herb-like edge. They’re vibrant, addictive. Foods that taste good with a squeeze of lime or lemon taste incredible teamed with tomatillos.
In mainstream supermarket chains, they range in size from unshelled walnuts to golf balls. Latin-American markets sometimes offer other varieties, stocking a smaller, purple-blushed beauty called morado. It has an appealing herbal fragrance. There’s also the tiny marble-sized miltomate, with an intense, sweet-tart taste and a gentle spiciness.
Selection and storage: Tomatillos fill their husks when they are mature, so look for those with dry, tight-fitting husks. They keep for up to three weeks in the refrigerator, loosely stored in the vegetable bin.
Preparation: Peel off the husks and rinse off the sticky coating, wiping (if necessary) with paper towels.
Uses: Raw, tomatillos have the texture of kiwi. Cooked, they’re as soft as grilled eggplant.
Although they can be eaten raw, tomatillos are usually cooked (either by grilling, roasting or blanching), then often incorporated into salsa verde.
One of the must-have basics in Mexican cuisine, salsa verde combines cooked tomatillos with ingredients such as diced white onion, cilantro and chilies. Some like to soften the salsa’s tartness with a little honey or sugar. It’s used in everything from dip for tortilla chips to quesadillas, guacamole with gusto, or tortilla soup with attitude.
"I make tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) in a huge pot," says Richard Sandoval, cookbook author of "Modern Mexican Flavors" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) as well as owner and founding chef of Mexican-themed restaurants in New York, Denver and San Francisco.
"Tomatillo salsa has nice acidity; it’s citrus-y. It makes seafood taste sweet, and it’s great in ceviche. With cheese, that acidity cuts the heaviness, gives a nice contrast and a lightness. With a tortilla, topped with black bean purée and queso fresco (cheese), well, tomatillo salsa is great anytime, 6 a.m. to midnight."
Here are 10 things to make with tomatillos. Most use them in the form of salsa verde. You can use prepared salsa verde, sold in jars in most supermarkets. Doctor it up with some diced white onion and a little chopped cilantro,ifyou wish. Or make a delectable "fromscratch" salsa verde (see recipe).
1 No-snore Salad Dressing: In a blender, combine 1/2 cup sour cream (regular, low-fat or nonfat), 1/4 cup salsa verde and a dash of seasoned salt. Whirl about 10 seconds or until blended. Toss with mixed lettuce and cherry tomatoes, adding enough dressing to lightly coat leaves. If desired, top salad with crumbled queso fresco (often labeled ranchero)orshredded jack cheese. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
2 Spirited Soup: Add salsa verde (to taste) to your favorite chicken soup (either homemade or store-bought), such as chicken vegetable or chicken with rice. Top servings with a dollop of sour cream, a little chopped cilantro (if you like it) and some crumbled tortilla chips.
3 Pasta with Tomatillos, Tomatoes and Green Olives: While you bring a big pot of salted water to a boil over high heat (to cook 1 pound pasta, any shape), place 2 tablespoons olive oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 medium onion (chopped) and 1 jalapeño chili (seeded, minced); cook 2 minutes. Add 6 medium tomatillos (husked, diced), 6 Roma tomatoes (diced) and 2 sprigs fresh oregano (chopped); cook 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup water and simmer until tomatoes soften and most of water is gone, about 4 minutes. Stir in 12 pitted green olives (coarsely chopped), 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus salt and pepper to taste; set aside. Cook and drain pasta. Toss with sauce (adapted from "While The Pasta Cooks," by Andrew Schloss, Macmillan, $22).
4 Guac Talk: Salsa verde perks up guacamole in an irresistible way; the citrus-like flavor complements the creamy richness of avocado. In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup salsa verde with 2 ripe avocados (pitted, peeled). Mash with fork until incorporated but still chunky. Taste and add salt, pepper and hot sauce as needed. If desired, stir in 2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro and 2-3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion. Serve with sturdy tortilla chips (often the best chips are sold at Mexican restaurants or Mexican markets).
5 Green Rice: Tomatillos give the rather neutral taste of rice a vibrant flavor edge. In a bowl or glass measuring cup, combine 1/2 cup salsa verde, 1 1/2 cups water or chicken broth, pinch salt and 3 green onions (sliced, including some of the dark-green stalks); set aside. Heat 1 teaspoon of canola oil and 1 teaspoon of butter in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Add 2 cloves garlic (minced) and cook 30 seconds. Add 1 cup longgrained rice; cook and stir occasionally, until rice is lightly browned. Add salsa verde mixture and bring to a boil; immediately reduce heat to low, cover and cook 18 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. If desired, stir in 1/4 cup chopped cilantro.
6 Tomato and Queso Fresco Quesadillas: Easy to make, these delectable warm "tortilla sandwiches" can include a variety of fillings. Try a mixture of Mexican cheese (such as queso fresco), diced ham, sliced Roma tomatoes, chopped cilantro and green onion slices placed between two flour tortillas. Grill in a mixture of 1 teaspoon butter and 1 teaspoon canola oil until they’re toasty brown on both sides. After they are cooked, top them with the key ingredient: salsa verde.
7 Chilaquiles: This Mexican entree was originally invented to use up leftovers (such as chicken, tortilla chips and cheese), but chef Richard Sandoval’s isn’t the typical "casserole-like" version. Instead he tosses thick tortilla chips with warm tomatillo sauce lightly sweetened with honey. Slices of grilled chicken breast are served next to the luscious tomatillo-chip mixture (see recipe).
8 Grilled "Whatever" with Mango-Tango Salsa: Grilled fish, chicken or pork tastes incredible topped with a mango-enriched salsa verde. To 1 cup salsa verde, add 1 large mango (seeded, diced). Taste salsa and add more chopped cilantro or minced fresh chili, to suit your taste. Spoon salsa over grilled "whatever."
9 Fried Egg with Elation: Break an egg into a cup. On one side of a large nonstick skillet, heat a corn tortilla over medium-high heat. Place 1 teaspoon butter or canola oil on opposite side. When butter melts (or oil heats), spread on half of skillet using a paper towel or rubber spatula. Invert cup over oil or butter to drop egg into pan. Cook egg until desired degree of doneness is reached, turning if desired. Place warm tortilla on plate. Top with egg and about 2 tablespoons salsa verde. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
10 Salsa-fied Mayo: Stir 1 cup mayonnaise with 1/4 cup salsa verde and 2 green onions (trimmed, minced, including some of dark-green stalks). Use in place of plain mayonnaise in tuna or salmon salad.