WHAT’S IN SEASON: TOMATILLOS

Discover an easy-to-love,
easy-to-grow way to add flavor to your cooking

Photo by Patrick Tregenza

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA AND CRYSTAL BIRNS

Tomatillos, a sour fruit encapsulated by a thin, papery husk, can bring bright and tangy flavor to almost any dish, while packing a punch that no other fruit can quite replicate. With minimal effort, delectable tomatillos can be much more than salsa verde—they can be sliced thinly and eaten raw on toast with some soft sheep cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, braised alongside a chicken, made into a green curry with coconut milk, sautéed with onions as a side dish, blackened in the oven and made into a tapenade with some olives or blended into a tasty salad dressing.

Originating in Mexico, where it is also known as “miltomate” or husk tomato, the tomatillo is a member of the nightshade family that includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes and even tobacco. Both the Mayans and the Aztecs utilized wild tomatillos as a staple in their diet, but it was the Aztecs who saved seeds and domesticated the plant. Lucky for us, they grow great here on the Central Coast. And with minimal effort and some basic know-how, they can be a part of your seasonal repertoire.

I’ve noticed that it is a rare person who buys tomatillos at the farmers’ market; therefore, many local farmers are not growing them anymore. As cooking becomes a niche hobby for people, the demand and the likelihood of finding them will continue to dwindle. Pinnacle Organic farm still grows and sells them at the farmers’ markets and at its farm stand in San Juan Bautista. And the UCSC Farm offers tasty tomatillos at its weekly market cart at the campus entrance.

It’s time to celebrate the tomatillo and try your hand at some homemade salsa verde or give La Posta chef Katherine Stern’s salad dressing a try, if only so that farmers will continue to grow them!

My favorite way to utilize the bright, lemony tasting tomatillos is to make a tapenade consisting of roasted tomatillos, diced cured green and black olives, fresh herbs like parsley, mint, bronze fennel, or basil, fresh or roasted garlic, fresh or dried mild chile peppers, olive oil and salt and pepper. Chunky and delicious, this green tapenade upgrades a sandwich or anything that needs a boost of flavor. Just don’t think you can swap green tomatoes for tomatillo or you will be disappointed. Tomatillos are tarter, with a lemon-citrus flavor, and have much less juice, resulting in a thick, rich sauce unlike a tomato.

CHOOSING AND STORING TOMATILLOS

Smaller tomatillos are sweeter than large ones. Choose ones that have a fresh-looking husk that is not dried or shriveled, and be sure that the fruit is firm with no soft spots. If you aren’t going to use them right away, store them in the refrigerator with their husks intact, where they will keep for several weeks.

Tomatillos freeze well once roasted; this is another way to save the fall harvest for winter stews, chili, soups and more. There is no need to peel or remove seeds—simply remove husks, wash the sticky residue off the skin and roast in the oven at 450° F until the skin is charred, about 20 minutes. Once cooled, store roasted tomatillos flat in freezer bags.

GROWING

Not only are tomatillos tasty, they also are a great addition to the garden and not as fickle as other plants in the nightshade family.

While they prefer warm temperatures, they also thrive in coastal areas, unlike tomatoes and eggplants. Tomatillos are drought resistant and require very little water after they are established.

Tomatillos come in green and purple; some purple heirloom varieties are known for being sweeter and are more likely to be eaten raw. De Milpa is a desirable variety of heirloom purple tomatillo; however, it will only turn purple when the fruit gets so fat that it splits the husk and allows the sun to hit that part of the fruit.

For good pollination and fruit set, plant at least two seedlings 2–3 feet apart in well-drained soil with a top dressing of compost.

Use tomato cages or a trellis system to keep the tomatillos growing upright—this makes harvesting easier and prevents fungal diseases. Because tomatillos are sour and wrapped in a husk, there are no pests or animals that bother the fruit. Flea beetles often dine on the leaves, but it doesn’t affect the tomatillo inside.

In just two months fruit will begin to be ready to harvest. You will know a tomatillo is perfect when it has completely filled out the husk and just begins to burst out. If you want a less tart, sweeter tomatillo, wait until the husks fully open and the fruit turns yellow. Continuing to pick tomatillos when they are ripe will encourage more fruit and higher yields—well cared for plants can produce up to 15 pounds. Tomatillos are very prolific; if you leave a few to drop on the ground, they will reseed year after year as if you planted them!

HEALTH BENEFITS

One medium tomatillo contains 91 milligrams of potassium. If you ate a small bowl of salsa verde, it would have more than a banana. Potassium is an important electrolyte that helps keep nerves and muscles communicating and works with the salts in your body to help keep blood pressure from getting too high. Tomatillos also contain significant amounts of vitamin C and phytochemical compounds that are antibacterial and potentially cancer fighting. Traditional healers in India touted tomatillos as beneficial for arthritis, and joint and muscle conditions because they fight inflammation in the body. Native American tribes ate wild tomatillos and used them to treat many ailments; charred tomatillo seeds have been excavated in archeological digs.

Kansas University, in collaboration with the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, conducted a study of native wild tomatillos, a common weed in the Great Plains, and their effect on mice with aggressive cancers. It was found that wild tomatillos contain several compounds called withanolides, which show promising anticancer properties for thyroid, breast, head, neck and brain tumors as well as leukemia, without harmful toxicities or side effects. There is hope that these properties can eventually help humans. All the more reason to eat tomatillos!

Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms, which you can find at all of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets (downtown, Westside, Live Oak, Felton and Scotts Valley) and at the Pacific Grove farmers’ market on Mondays.

You will know a tomatillo is perfect when it
has completely filled out the husk
and just begins to burst out


Photo by Crystal Birns

RECIPE

ITALIAN-STYLE ROASTED TOMATILLO DRESSING

LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER & NOVEMBER

FRUITS

Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Blackberries** • Cactus Pears • Dates • Feijoas**** • Figs • Guavas**** • Kiwis** • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes*** • Mandarins**** • Melon** • Nectarines** • Oranges • Peaches* • Pears • Persimmons** • Plums • Pluots • Pomegranates • Pomelos**** • Quince** • Raspberries • Strawberries

VEGETABLES

Beans • Beets • Bok Choy* • Broccoli • Brussels Sprouts* • Burdock • Cabbages • Carrots • Cauliflowers • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumbers • Dandelions • Eggplants • Endive • Fennel • Garlic • Herbs • Horseradish • Kale • Leeks • Lettuces • Mustard Greens • Okra • Olives • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas • Pea Shoots • Peppers • Potatoes • Radishes • Rhubarb • Rutabagas*** • Salsify • Scallions • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash, Summer and Winter • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Tomatillos • Tomatoes • Turnips

NUTS

Almonds • Hazelnuts • Pecans • Pistachios • Walnuts

SEAFOOD

Abalone • Halibut, Calif. • Lingcod • Rock Cod/Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Sanddabs • Sole Sea Bass, White • Spot Prawns • Squid, Market • Tuna, Albacore

* September only
** Only through October
***October and beyond
****November only

Notes: Fish species listed are all harvested by local commercial fishermen and rated “good alternatives” or “best choices” for sustainability by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Research assistance by Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.

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