Call them the Rodney Dangerfield of Mexican fruit. Apart from their frequent appearance in salsas verdes, I rarely see tomatillos being used in Mexico. And, outside of Mexico, I rarely see them at all.
I think that’s a shame. For if you want a little sour in any dish, tomatillos come with a bonus, a hint of sweet that makes the overall taste extraordinary.
There are other fruits that have that balance. I have fond memories of gooseberries from when I was a kid. I remember, right after twisting my face into a prune, I would have this little sugar rush. And loved it.
Fruits like pineapples, plums and oranges can also have a nice hit of sour before they fully ripen. And there are touches of sweet and sour in tamarinds, tomatoes and green mangoes. But the feeling of freshness you get as a bonus with the sour and sweet of a tomatillo takes it up another rung on the food ladder.
It’s difficult to decisively pinpoint the origin of any plant but, with its name deriving from the local Nahuatl language (tomatl), we can be reasonably sure that tomatillos began life in Mexico.
Even though this juicy fruit that begins life as a beautiful flower was born and raised in Mexico, what Mexicans call them can be confusing. Foreigners living in Central Mexico, like me, almost always call them tomatillos. In San Miguel de Allende, locals usually call them tomates or tomates verdes unless they are small in size, at which point they sometimes become tomatillos. The definitive thing to remember is that tomates verdes are not green tomatoes; Mexicans call those jitomates verdes.
Kirsten West, chef/owner of La Piña Azul Cooking School in San Miguel de Allende calls the smaller version, tomatillo de milpa. “They are grown with corn and squash”, she told me, “in the fields.” Kirsten added, “They are more expensive because they take longer to pick.”
In local fruit and veg markets, you will usually only see a mix of sizes at any specific stall. But at supermarkets like San Miguel’s La Comer, you’ll see a choice of large and small and two very different prices. The large, that are labeled tomates verdes, are less than half the price of the small that are labeled tomatillos.
I have always been bewildered by the choice, so recently, my curiosity (you can choose another word such as obsession) got to me and I bought three different sizes at San Miguel’s Ignacio Ramirez Market.
For all sizes, I did as I had been told in a few books: Buy only those with firm flesh and tight, unwrinkled husks (and there were quite a few that were a little squishy that I had to put back). My conclusions: The smaller tomatillos are, the more acidic or sour but, for most recipes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The bigger they are, the sweeter but also the seedier which, for some recipes, is a bad thing. So yes, I’m still bewildered.
I have also read about purple and yellow tomatillos being the best/sweetest and I was able to obtain a photo of one but I have never actually seen a single one for sale (and I’ve searched), only the greens. Again, I asked for guidance from Kirsten West.
“Yes, there is a purple and yellow variety”, said Kirsten, “but they are not grown commercially; that’s why you don’t see them in the supermarkets. Sometimes I have seen them at Mercado Sano, the Saturday organic market. Natura (on Ancha de San Antonio) at one time got a crate full but they didn’t sell because nobody knew what they were. So I bought them all, made salsa and froze it in batches. But I didn’t find them to be sweeter.”
As I mentioned earlier, I am always astonished at how little tomatillos are used outside of Mexico. I know why of course because, even in a big city like Toronto, where there are thousands of Mexican immigrants, they are very, very scarce. I know because I’ve been told to “not come home without them” (Perola’s in Kensington Market is your best bet in Toronto). I brought home canned once; I found them in the “International” section of a big Toronto supermarket but they weren’t exactly welcomed by Don Day’s Wife.
It’s not that tomatillos are difficult to grow in Northern climates. Kirsten West told me that, “Chef Rick Bayless in Chicago has commissioned Amish farmers to grow tomatillos for his restaurants. They harvest hundreds of pounds each summer.”
Kirsten also has a possible solution for tomatillo growers: “They might need to get the same PR agency that has put kale on the map, a rather bitter vegetable when eaten raw. The tomatillo has definitely more nutritious values than kale.”
I mentioned earlier that I am astonished at how little tomatillos make it into Mexican dishes other than salsa verde. You can read an entire Mexican cookbook and not see tomatillos in any recipe other than a salsa.
That’s definitely the case again in the book I’m currently reading, “Frida’s Fiestas” (I just picked it up and flipped through it to make sure). In other books and websites, it does find its way into some green mole recipes and I have seen it in some more complicated sauces served with chicken and pork but, almost never in a restaurant, do I ever see tomatillos in a salad, as a garnish on a taco, or as a side vegetable which is a shame. Until that time when I do find a place in town serving a very good dish with tomatillos, I will share a very good salsa verde recipe with you that Kirsten West shared with me.
Kirsten’s interest in Mexican cuisine began 30 plus years ago when she was living in L.A. and decided to go on a 12-day culinary tour of Mexico with Marilyn Tausand’s “Culinary Adventures” where she had some life changing classes with Diana Kennedy, the woman who, today, is considered the person who, almost singlehandedly, put Mexican cuisine on the world map. Diana and Kirsten became friends and colleagues and, it didn’t take long before Kirsten was as hooked on Mexican as Diana.
If Diana Kennedy is the queen of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless is the crown prince. Kirsten West’s appreciation of Mexican cuisine was culminated when she met Rick Bayless in Oaxaca and, subsequently, spent eight years in Chicago working with him on his PBS television show and testing all of the recipes that went into his book, “Mexico, One Plate At A Time”.
Kirsten actually gave me two different recipes, one that uses fresh tomatillos and one that uses roasted. Tomatillos are a lot like tomatoes; heating them greatly enhances their depth of flavor so I decided to share the roasted recipe. It comes from Rick Bayless’ “Mexican Everyday”.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa de Tomate Verde Asado)
4 medium (about 8 oz.) tomatillos, husked, rinsed and halved
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
Hot green chiles to taste (2 serranos or 1 jalapeño)
1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/2 small white onion, finely chopped
Set a large (10 inch) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (if you don’t have a nonstick skillet, lay in a piece of foil). Place the garlic and tomatillos cut side down. When the tomatillos are well browned, 3-4 minutes, turn everything over and brown the other side (the tomatillos should be completely soft). Scrape the tomatillos and garlic into a blender or food processor and let cool to room temperature, about 3 minutes. Add the chiles, cilantro and ¼ cup water. Blend to a coarse puree. Pour into a salsa dish and thin with a little additional water if necessary to give the salsa an easily spoonable consistency. Scoop the chopped onion into a strainer and rinse under cold water, Stir into the salsa. Taste and season with salt, usually about ½ teaspoon.
La Pina Azul is located at Orizaba 39A in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can learn more about Kirsten West and her cooking lessons at pinaazulcookingschool.com. To book a private class, telephone Kirsten at 415 101 4155 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.