“I have a lot of tomatillos in my garden,” said my friend Thurid Clark. “You should do an article about them.”
Since I’d never tried cooking with tomatillos, I was immediately intrigued. Thurid is an amazing gardener, and I knew her tomatillos would be wonderful. She gave me a bag of them to take home so I could experiment.
Tomatillos, or Mexican tomatoes, are a staple food in Mexico. They are used as the base of a classic green salsa, and are used in many other kinds of meat and vegetable sauces, too.
Other common names include husk tomato, jamberry, husk cherry, or ground cherry. They look like a small green tomato, except there is a loose, papery husk surrounding the fruit. (Tomatillos are related to gooseberries, which sometimes also have a husk.) Underneath the husk, the tomatillo’s surface is covered with a sticky, oily substance that tastes a little bitter and is washed off before using. Different varieties of tomatillos can also be other colors, ranging from yellow to purple.
Flavor is typically tart, though it can vary considerably among individual tomatillos. One may be quite sour, while another is milder and may even be slightly sweet. When you use tomatillos in a dish, you should taste frequently. The overall degree of tartness can be controlled by adding more or less honey or sweet ingredients to offset it.
Tomatillos may be used raw, boiled, roasted, or grilled. The husk is always removed first and the sticky surface underneath is washed away. Used raw, you can chop them fine or puree them with other ingredients. Alternatively, boiling for about five minutes tames the sourness, and the tomatillos are then pureed as part of a sauce.
I’m a firm believer that roasting enhances the flavor of almost anything, so I decided I wanted to try making a salsa in which the tomatillos are roasted first. There are several ways to roast tomatillos: under a broiler, over an open flame (grill, gas burner or blow torch), or dry roasted in a hot pan on top of the stove. Broiling is quick and easy to control, so that’s the method I used. It’s important to preheat the broiler or grill before roasting so the tomatillos don’t become overcooked and too soft. You just want the outside to start to char. The charred bits will add a nice flavor to the final dish.
Traditionally, tomatillo salsa includes serrano peppers and cilantro. I couldn’t find any serranos, so used a combination of poblanos (for the rich pepper taste) and dried habanero powder (for the heat). I also didn’t have any cilantro, but I’m one of those people who thinks cilantro tastes a little like soap. I just left it out of my version of the recipe, though I’ve listed it in the ingredients below in case you’re one of those people who love it. Cilantro is definitely a traditional green salsa ingredient.
- 1-1/2 pounds fresh tomatillos (friend’s garden, Lummi Island)
- 2 fresh poblano chile pepper (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- small pinch of dried habanero pepper powder (friend’s garden, Lummi Island)
- 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled (Half Acre Farm, Ferndale)
- 1 large red onion, coarsely chopped (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
- 1 tsp coarse salt (see Exceptions)
- ½ tsp of honey (Guilmette’s Busy Bees, Bellingham)
- Optional: ½ cup fresh cilantro (several Farmers Market vendors, Bellingham)
- Preheat broiler.
- Peel back outer husks by starting at the blossom end and pulling toward the stem end. Remove and discard the husks, and rinse tomatillos under warm water to remove stickiness.
- Broil chiles, garlic, and tomatillos on the rack of a broiler pan 1 to 2 inches from heat, turning once, until tomatillos are softened and slightly charred, about 7 minutes total.
- Peel the roasted garlic and poblano peppers. After peeling, halve the peppers and remove top stem and seeds. Chop the pepper halves coarsely. Do not peel the tomatillos.
- Purée all ingredients in a blender.
Serve as a dip with Sweet Potato Chips, with Mexican dishes such as burritos, or as a marinade for beef steaks or roasts.
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut, Bellingham
Community Food Co-operative, Westerly and Cordata, Bellingham
Friends’ gardens, Lummi Island
Full Bloom Farm, Centerview and Tuttle, Lummi Island
Half Acre Farm u-pick at Boxx Berry Farm, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale
Terra Organica, Flora and Cornwall, Bellingham