It might be the beginning of June, but that doesn’t mean the soil here in the Northeast is quite ready to give us the fruits and vegetables we’re pretty sure we remember it was able to last year. There’s some asparagus, sure, some baby greens, some rhubarb and ramps, but every springtime visit to the farmers market reminds us that spring is a garbage season, that it lasts much longer than we think it will, and that nothing really starts producing in New York until near the end of the month. That said, tomatillos are in season now, albeit not locally, and you should be eating them.
Tomatillo means “little tomato,” but it isn’t much of a tomato at all. It’s in the same family as the tomato (it’s a very big family, also including the eggplant, all peppers, tobacco, and the petunia), but not the same genus, so it’s not particularly closely related. A much closer relation would be the cape gooseberry, a small yellow fruit to which it bears an even more striking resemblance. The tomatillo can range in size from a very small tomato to a medium-sized tomato, and in color from yellow to purple, but the vast majority of the tomatillos you’ll find in the U.S. are a vibrant light green, wrapped in a dry papery husk.
You can tell as soon as you slice into a tomatillo that it isn’t really a tomato; in place of the tomato’s ribs and squishy seed-pod goop, the tomatillo is crisp and airy, with tiny edible seeds sprinkled around its core. The flavor is not easily comparable to very many other common fruits or vegetables; typically, any fruit that’s as tart and crisp as a tomatillo is considered unripe. That taste and texture is becoming more common in the high-end restaurant world; chefs love to experiment with green strawberries, green plums, and other unripe fruits because they add such an unexpected note of acid and non-sweet fruitiness. But unripe fruits can be hard to find, and tomatillos are not at all hard to find.
Acidity from tomatillos is different than other acidic elements. To add acid from a raw source (meaning, not from vinegar or prepared other souring agent), usually you’d only use the juice, as with a lemon, a lime, or a yuzu, whereas a tomatillo is used for its flesh and not its juice. Other highly acidic fruits, like kiwi, pineapple, and grapefruit, are also very sweet, which makes them tricky (though not impossible!) to use in savory dishes. Tomatillos, though, are highly acidic and have a minimal amount of sugar in addition to a kind of herbaceous fruity flavor and a very crisp texture. There isn’t really any substitute for them in most dishes, not even green tomatoes, which look similar on the outside.
They are hugely important in Mexican cuisine, which places a lot of emphasis on acidic flavors. They’re used both raw and cooked, and can be cooked in a variety of ways, though their most common use is in sauces, especially in salsa verde. It’s also common to find them in the lighter moles, like mole verde and mole amarillo, and the fruit’s acid lends assistance in balancing out fatty meat dishes, especially stewed pork.
I like tomatillos because I love acidic food; just last weekend I ate an entire god damn lemon, for fun (these things are a prized treat at a horse show where I grew up). But I also like playing around with them because they’re more versatile than people think. Search through any database of recipes and your results for “tomatillo” will net you about a hundred salsa verdes, some chile verde pork stew, sauces with avocado or poblano, maybe a cheeky green Bloody Mary or gazpacho. But there’s no particular reason to restrict their use to traditional Mexican food (or American cocktails, or Spanish soup), and there’s also nothing particularly interesting about the way I make salsa verde (I just do this), so today’s recipes will not be very Mexican at all.
Tomatillos make an excellent addition to many flavor bases, the result of that early step in recipes where you’re sauteing onion and garlic and maybe other stuff in oil. Chopped tomatillos add acidity and body and a little sweetness, and pair well with cuisines from India to Italy. Raw tomatillos are stronger, less sweet and more sour, and maintain a crisp flavor, somewhere between a tomato and a jicama. There’s nothing about them, really, that would stop you from sticking them in any recipe that needs a hint of sourness or crispness.
When shopping, look for very firm tomatillos and for a husk that is as non-dry as possible; eventually it’ll get crackly and brittle, which means the tomatillo is old. And get the smallest ones possible to maximize their sweetness. Before you cook them, peel the husk off and discard (it’s not edible) and wash the tomatillo, which is invariably sticky. From there you can chop them up however you want; the whole thing is edible, and even the stem part is pretty tender, though if I’m serving them raw I like to cut out a little triangle just at the toughest part of where the stem was attached.
Raw Tomatillo And Spring Vegetable Salad
Shopping list: Tomatillos, spring greens (baby bitter greens are best, like baby chard, arugula, or mizuna; a mix is good), asparagus, pumpkin seeds, avocado, a sharp aged cheese (parmesan, gran padano, garrotxa), scallions, rice wine vinegar, sugar, olive oil
Stick a cast iron pan over medium heat. When it’s hot, scatter in a handful of pumpkin seeds, tossing infrequently. After about 45 seconds, the seeds should be fragrant and toasted, so remove and allow to cool. Slice tomatillos thinly into rounds. Trim woody ends of asparagus and slice (diagonally, aka “on the bias,” if you’re feeling fancy/like a dick) into inch-long pieces. Slice a scallion or two into thin rounds. Cut your avocado into chunks, and shave some cheese into decent sized pieces (no tiny grated crumbs; you want to be able to stab a piece of cheese with a fork). Toss all this stuff in a big bowl and add in a few handfuls of the greens.
The dressing is just vinegar, sugar, and olive oil; this salad is pretty acidic and salty so your dressing should be a little more sweet than normal. Toss everything together and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pasta With Tomatillo, Ricotta, And Sunflower Seed
Shopping list: Tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, pasta of your choice (I like a short curly pasta), ricotta, sunflower seeds, garlic, olive oil, chile flakes, white wine, shallots, oregano
Start a pot of salted water to boil for your pasta. In a big saute pan, heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Chop a few cloves of garlic and a medium-sized shallot and toss into the pan along with a pinch of chile flakes. Dice up a few tomatillos and a much smaller amount of cherry tomatoes, maybe a ratio of 3:1. When the shallot is translucent, throw in the tomatillos and tomatoes and a splash of white wine, and allow to cook down while the pasta cooks, maybe 15–20 minutes.
In a bowl, mix together a bunch of ricotta cheese with a small handful of sunflower seeds and either chopped fresh oregano or dried oregano and a bit of salt.
When the pasta is almost done, remove and drain and toss into the sauce to finish cooking. Season to taste. When the pasta is cooked, move the whole thing onto a plate and plop spoonfuls of your ricotta mixture asymmetrically around the plate. Finish with another drizzle of olive oil.
Fried Tomatillos With Labneh And Za’atar
Shopping list: Tomatillos, eggs, cornmeal, labneh (or Greek yogurt, cheesecloth, and time), za’atar spice mix, vegetable oil
If you can’t find labneh, a sort of cheese-yogurt thing, you can make it really easily: just place some cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel in a pasta strainer, then plop in a whole bunch of Fage Greek yogurt and allow the water to drain out overnight. That’s it!
Set up your frying station. You want a cast iron pan with about a quarter inch of vegetable oil in it. Beat an egg or two and put it in a bowl. Mix cornmeal with za’atar (it’s a Middle Eastern spice blend made of an oregano-like herb, sumac, usually sesame seeds and thyme) in a ratio of about 8:1. Slice tomatillos into rounds about a quarter-inch thick and pat the cut sides dry.
Heat the oil up so when you toss in a bit of any material you’ve got on hand it sizzles but doesn’t explode. Take each slice of tomatillo, dip in the beaten egg, then dip in the bowl of cornmeal, shaking off any excess. Place carefully in the cast iron pan to shallow-fry (if it doesn’t sizzle when you put it in, take it out and raise the heat) for maybe two minutes on each side. Serve with labneh.
Tomatillos have uses far, far beyond what I’ve done here — I especially like them in curries, on the grill, in soupy black bean dishes, and in chicken soup — but I hope this entices you to maybe try using tomatillos for more than salsa. They’re a really spectacular, unique ingredient, and the U.S. is unusual in that they are a very common sight throughout the entire country. (Just try finding tomatillos in France.) So let’s take advantage of them!
Photo by Timlewsnm