What to do with tomatillos (those sassy little tarts)

Look at these things: They’re gorgeous, no?

These are tomatillos. If you live in California, or New Mexico, say — places with a little ethnic or culinary diversity — you might already be intimate with these. I, on the other hand, live in whitest-of-white-bread New England. Forgive me my sheltered enthusiasm; they’re a little less familiar to me.

I began cooking with tomatillos last summer, and I was delighted. They look kind of like green tomatoes — their name, in Spanish, means “little tomato” — but they are firm and tart and sour, like a sassy, hip-swaying cousin of their juicy, red cousins. They grow in husks that look like Japanese paper lanterns; when you pull them out of the husk, they are intriguingly sticky.

Tomatillos were first cultivated by the Aztecs. I’m sure you recall from 7th grade social studies that the Aztecs allowed women to be priests, AND they drank chocolate. Human sacrifices aside, the Aztecs always did seem pretty wise.

Tomatillos form the basis of most green salsas, as well as verde sauces in Mexican cuisine. They can be roasted, added to soups, chopped into zangy salsas, and even used to make green gazpacho. I’ve tried them a bunch of different ways, invariably to delicious results. Unfortunately, with each attempt, I have been so busy exclaiming things like “I love these things!” and “Tomati-yo! Tomati-yo! Listen to me, I even know how to pronounce it correctly! Tomati-YO!” and “Wow! Maybe I’m not so hopelessly white after all!” that I neglect to keep track of what, exactly, I’m doing.

Hence, I have no specific recipe for you. Not a one.

The good news, however, is that these dynamic little powerhouses of flavor, mixed with a few other staple ingredients — say, onion, garlic, chile, cumin, lime, and fresh cilantro — can do wonderful things, even without a recipe.

A few nights ago, for example, my buddy Jenn came over for a little Scream at Your Bickering Children-Festival dinner and we made a tomatillo-chicken soup. As our children ran wild, decided against taking our child-rearing cues from the Aztecs and throwing them into a fiery pit. Instead, we made our sacrifice to the Gods in 21st century-style: we simply ignored our little beasties as we stood in the kitchen chopping and sipping on cocktails.

It took Jenn a little time to overcome her trepidation about taking them out of their papery husks and washing the sticky stuff off of the tomatillo skin — “Mucus!” she screeched, recoiling, when she first touched them — but she quickly moved past that, and began to enjoy the process.

“Ohh, you can blog about this,” she exclaimed as I threw ingredients haphazardly into the pot.

“Mmm,” I answered. “Unfortunately, once again, I’m not really keeping track of what I’m doing here.”

“That’s okay!” said Jenn. “It can be all about how you don’t need a recipe!”

And so it is.

That night, dinner involved sauteed garlic, onion, a green chile, a touch of cumin, handfuls of chopped tomatillos, kosher sea salt, and chicken broth. We simmered until soft. Then we blended with an immersion blender, added heaps of leftover chicken, simmered some more. We added fresh cilantro, a touch of lime juice, then served it over rice. And it was good. The adults and one of the four children, thought so, anyway. Two children refused to try it, and the remaining child pursed her lips and shook her head back and forth. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NOOOOOO!”

But that child was Charlotte. Don’t take her word on anything.

The next day, I mixed the leftovers with black beans, and I dare say it got even tastier.

Tomatillos pack a powerful nutritional punch: just one tomatillo includes 91 mg of potassium, as well as plenty of calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin K. Add them to salads or soups to punch up your meal’s nutritional content.

They keep for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator. However, if you’re lucky enough to have more tomatillos than you can use in that time, try freezing them; spread them out first on a baking sheet to freeze; once frozen, put them in a freezer bag. Or better yet, try Barbara’s simple recipe for canned tomatillo salsa. If you’re looking to cook with them tonight, try this yogurt-gazpacho recipe from Gourmetish. Or how do enchiladas verde sound? Can’t stop the tomatillo love? Here’s a nice article from the LA Times about tomatillos.

I’m on vacation this week, in the Blue Ridge mountains. I might have something to say from here, I might not. Either way, I hope you have a great week.

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6 Responses to “What to do with tomatillos (those sassy little tarts)”


  1. 1 wendy p August 25, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Oh, Thanks Ali!! I was wondering about them when I saw them at the farm!

    I made an extremely fast, easy (no chopping) and delicious roasted salsa last night that I recommend. I dare say I will use those tomati-YOs when I make it next! Served it with chicken and rice.

    Here is the link to the salsa recipe if anyone is interested:

    http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Roasted-Tomato-Salsa-I/Detail.aspx

    The Blue Ridge mountains sound divine. EnJoy!!

  2. 2 Pamela August 25, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    My first foray into tomatillo usage was when I made chicken enchiladas from a recipe out of Bon Apetit magazine. It was so yummy, but working with tomatillos was a little messy. And you’re not kidding, they’re some of the stickiest little boogers I’ve worked with.

    People “round these parts” make lots of salsa using them. I wouldn’t mind trying something a little less TexMex like your chicken soup.

  3. 3 Frances August 26, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Tomatillos? Make salsa verde, of course. It is so, so good, and really shows off the sweet freshness of a ripe tomatillo. You can get everything you need at Caretaker (I thought perhaps I was the only one picking them!).

    The recipe below, from Epicurious, is pretty similar to the Rick Bayless recipe I use, pictured below.

    Salsa Verde: Green Tomatillo Salsa
    Recipe courtesy Rick Bayless.
    From Mexico: One plate at a Time; Scribner, 2000.

    8 ounces (5 to 6 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed
    Fresh hot green chiles, to taste (roughly 2 serranos or 1 jalapeno), stemmed
    5 or 6 sprigs fresh cilantro (thick stems removed), roughly chopped
    Scant 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
    Salt

    Whether you choose the verdant, slushy, herby freshness of the all-raw tomatillo salsa or the oil-colored, voluptuous, sweet-sour richness of the roasted version, tomatillos are about brightening tang. The buzz of the fresh hot green chile adds thrill, all of which adds up to a condiment most of us simply don’t want to live without.

    For the All-Raw version: Roughly chop the tomatillos and the chiles. In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatillos, chiles, cilantro and 1/4 cup water. Process to a coarse puree, then scrape into a serving dish. Rinse the onion under cold water, then shake to remove excess moisture. Stir into the salsa and season with salt, usually a generous 1/4 teaspoon.

    For the Roasted version:

    Preheat a broiler.

    Roast the tomatillos and chiles on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until darkly roasted, even blackened in spots, about 5 minutes. Flip them over and roast the other side, 4 to 5 minutes more will give you splotchy-black and blistered tomatillos and chiles. In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatillos and chiles, including all the delicious juice that has run onto the baking sheet. Add the cilantro and 1/4 cup water, blend to a coarse puree, and scrape into a serving dish. Rinse the onion under cold water, then shake to remove the excess moisture. Stir into the salsa and season with salt, usually a generous 1/4 teaspoon.

  4. 4 Cheryl August 27, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    First time here, and me likey. I moved from the east coast to the west nearly 5 years ago and recently discovered pasilla peppers (called poblanos everywhere, apparently, except California). I had my own little revelation about them (http://5secondrule.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/08/pasilla.html), much as you did about tomatillos.

    I’ve never prepared tomatillos before, and I realize I now have absolutely no excuse. I look forward to following your non-recipe.

  5. 5 Fabulously Broke December 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Didn’t find them sticky at all.

    I do a good wash on the tomatillos after I remove the papery husks.

    I actually like using them in other meals like sliced inside a Thai Red Curry to give it another layer of flavour – tart and sour – or eating them on the side with samosas to cut the oily flavour of them since they’re so tart and fresh.

  6. 6 Fabulously Broke December 28, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Didn’t find them sticky at all.

    I do a good wash on the tomatillos after I remove the papery husks.

    I actually like using them in other meals like sliced inside a Thai Red Curry to give it another layer of flavour – tart and sour – or eating them on the side with samosas to cut the oily flavour of them since they’re so tart and fresh.

    Fabulously Broke in the City
    Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver…


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