Tangy Tomatillos


We pulled out the tomatillo plants a few weeks ago. I’m missing them already.

For years we had talked of growing these delightful cousins to the tomato but had never found the plants when we needed them. So we’d move on, regretfully. Next year, we’d sigh, we’ll try those tomatillos.

Then this spring, it all came together. A stop at our local nursery turned up a six pack of seedlings. They looked dry and spindly at the start. But it wasn’t long before they were flourishing — all gangly limbs and petite yellow flowers that press themselves inside out and are beloved by the bees.

After a few weeks, these otherworldly, translucent balloons began to form. I’m serious. It felt like the dawn of aviation, with dozens of mini daredevils racing to become the first to circumnavigate that corner of our yard. The lime green puffs became a touch of whimsy fluttering among the everyday tomato stalks and zucchini mounds.

We watched and waited all through June, all through July, not knowing how this was going to turn out. Then one Sunday in early August, after we got home from a weekend away, we stepped into the garden to find that all those light-as-air-balloons had been filled. They’d turned from bright green beacons to hard, duller balls.

It was time to harvest.

I hunted and picked and brought in a colander-full that evening. And the next day. All at once we had bowls of these little green apples covered in a papery skin all over the counter.

I had to figure out what to do with them.

Salsa verde was our first stop. My husband’s love of green salsa is what had inspired us to grow the tomatillos in the first place.

I began researching and testing. Different experts had me boiling the tomatillos into a mush or roasting them before I stirred them into salsa. In the end, I loved the bright, citrus-y taste of the fruit so much that I opted for the simplest fix. My favorite salsa, hands-down, was a pound of raw tomatillos mixed with a jalapeno and a touch of lime. (Find the recipe here.)

This version earned me raves at the two potlucks where I shared it, so I must not be the only one with a taste for this tang.

Beyond salsa or a sauce for enchiladas or chicken dishes, it’s hard to find many recipes for the tomatillo. Because it’s small and not very meaty, when the tomatillo is cooked it breaks down quickly into a slurry that leaves it suitable for little other than sauce.

I tried it with avocado in a cold soup that wasn’t so stellar and tossed it into a few veggie sautés that found their way into taco shells or omelettes.

But just as I’d seen when I sampled salsas, I found I enjoyed the tart taste of the raw tomatillo more than any heated version. So I began adding sliced tomatillos to my salads and sandwiches. Tomato, cucumber, tomatillo and feta, with a touch of oil, vinegar and black pepper made such a simple, satisfying side dish.

By the by, I did find a Tomatillo Dal recipe that intrigued me. I read online that the tomatillo, indigenous to the Mexican highlands, was long ago exported around the world and has something of a following in Northern India. But by the time I’d landed on the inspiration, my magical, Mexican veggies were all but gone.

Next year, I sighed, I’ll have to try the dal.