The tomatillo is an oft forgotten fruit, sometimes shunted to the “ethnic” section of the produce department and frequently overlooked when compared to its bright summer cousin, the tomato. Tomatillos are those little green beauties that look like small, unripe tomatoes and are covered by that strange, papery husk. Ah, but my friends! Don’t pass the tomatillo by! This petite green fruit is a delicious beauty in its own right. Inside that delicate brown husk hides a wonderfully tart little package, only slightly reminiscent of its more popular cousin, and used to make all of those fabulous green sauces that grace many a Latin American dish.
As members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and tomatillos are both incognito fruits (yes, botanically if not traditionally, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable). A fruit is technically the ripened ovary of a plant (usually a flowering plant), which most often contains seeds, while a vegetable is all the other parts of the plant, including things like leaves (think: spinach!), stems (asparagus!) or roots (beets!). The nightshade family also includes other such incognito fruits such as capsicum (peppers), eggplant and the infamous magical mandrake of Harry Potter and folk tales galore. While in the same family, tomatoes and tomatillos have different genus and species names – much like, say, a mussel and a clam are both mollusks but have different genus and species names from each other (I won’t go into that here, but if you’re curious, email me and I’d be happy to fill you in). While they may have similarities in their outward appearances, the flavors of these two fruit cousins are quite distinct.
While the flesh of luscious summer tomato tastes subltly sweet, a tomatillo is tart and can lend a serious pucker to your mouth when eaten raw (though it’s still good this way too!). Roasted, however, tomatillos retain only a bit of that tartness, and have a deep, concentrated richness that would go excellent with enchiladas or nachos or fish or chicken or any number of dishes – turkey enchiladas made with leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and a side of rice and black beans perhaps? While fresh tomato salsas are the epitome of a summer condiment, roasted salsas, tomatillo salsa in particular, is redolent of the cooler, comfort-food days of fall, especially with a few smoky spices sprinkled in.
When choosing your tomatillos, choose small, firm fruits – they can be either a lighter or darker/brighter green, or even purple (purple are the sweetest, but these are generally only found in farmer's markets or a friend's garden). The papery husk should be brownish, but not turning black or mushy – the more papery, though, the better. The fruit will be slightly sticky; so don’t panic when things start sticking to your fingers as you’re removing the husks – when you rinse them, it does wash off and they're not slimy like okra can tend to be.
This is a simple, roasted tomatillo salsa that we made a while back while housesitting for some friends who had a lovely backyard garden full of tomatillos and the last of the summer tomatoes. If tomatillos have already come and gone in your neck of the woods, you can also make this with canned tomatillos - just don't try and roast them (roast the other goodies before you grind it all up though to get that fresh, smoky flavor!).
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa, makes about 1 ½ cup
¾ lb of fresh tomatillos, husks removed (or 2 cans of canned tomatillos)
2 medium jalapenos, whole
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium sweet onion, such as Walla Walla or Vidalia, roughly chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. ancho chile powder
Roast the tomatillos, jalapenos, garlic and onion in a roasting pan over high heat in the oven (broil ‘em, if you can - we can't because our oven is set 100 degrees too high and broiling sets off the fire alarm and causes the oven to short out - ah, I love my rental house!) until they soften and become charred. This will take about 8 minutes or so (if you're broiling), depending on your oven (that would be about 30 minutes for us, just roasting) and the size of the tomatillos. You can stir them once or twice if you want to, just make sure that you get that beautiful char, where all the flavor will come from. Allow the mixture to cool enough that you can puree it without it coming spewing out in-between the lid and the body of your food processor or blender.
Peel the garlic cloves (leaving the peel on allows the garlic to steam inside the skins, leaving it soft, creamy and flavorful as opposed to getting burnt and bitter), and pull off the tops of the jalapenos, leaving the seeds and skins intact (we like it slightly hotter – remove some of the seeds and membranes if you prefer a milder salsa). Reserve the liquid that oozes out of the tomatillos while roasting (much like tomatoes when you roast them). Add the spices and salt the mixture and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth – add as much of the liquid as you want to make it the thickness that you prefer (we usually do about half).
Serve as a dip with chips (add some avocado if you’d like), as a sauce for pork or chicken (mmm...how about as a base for green chile?), or add a bit of chicken stock or water to make a great sauce for topping enchiladas. The possibilities, and variations, are endless!