Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Growing and Cooking Tomatillos

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are also called "ground cherry", or "husk tomato". They are a distant relative of the tomato, with a similar flower and fruit, except that the fruit is protected by a papery husk. The most common variety is the green-fruited one, but occasionally you may see a variety that turns purple when ripe. These plants are critical for the "salsa verde" of Mexican cooking.

I have heard that you must have at least two plants before they will set fruit, but have not been able to confirm that rumor. I have three of them because I want lots of tomatillos to cook with. Growing these is easy - just pretend they are tomatoes and you can grow them anywhere. If nurseries in your region don't sell them as started plants, seeds are available on the Internet. They need full sun even in Arizona, moist soil, and some fertilization.The plant is a sprawler, so I used a tomato cage to try to keep the fruit off the ground. By mid-July they had outgrown the support and the sprawling branches were firmly rooted into the ground at some of the leaf nodes. Now (late September) the three plants are almost filling over an 8x6 foot raised bed and covering a couple of feet on either side of the bed. Keep this tendency in mind - it could engulf slower-growing plants. Next year I may try them in big pots near the pool.

It is not easy to tell when they are ready to harvest because you can't see them inside the husks, but they are edible at any stage. They start out tart, like a green apple, and get progressively sweeter as they grown and ripen. The best stage for most recipes is a light apple green, but don't worry if you find a pale yellow one. It's still good eating. I gently squeeze the husk to see how large the fruit is. If the fruit almost fills the husk, or is splitting the husk, it's ready to use. Mature size can be grape to golf-ball size.

I have not noticed many pests attacking the tomatillos, except for the @#$% quail and an occasional caterpillar (throw fruit with holes in it onto the compost heap ... crawly things lurk inside them).

Birds eat the fruits and seeds after they fall from the plant and dry up. In some areas, the plants will self-seed. Don't be surprised if your compost heap, corn patch, or flowerbed sprouts tomatillos.

Storing Tomatillos: The fruit lasts longer if you leave it in the husk and just refrigerate it. When you are ready to start cooking, remove the papery husk and wash the sticky gunk off the fruit with cold water.

Freezing Tomatillos: I peel off the husks, wash the sticky stuff off, put them in zip-close freezer bags and and freeze the tomatillos whole for later use in sauces. To freeze a pureed sauce base, simmer clean tomatillos in a small amount of water (with chilis, onions and garlic if you like) until they start to pop open. Puree and freeze this mix. Thaw it and add the cilantro and spices.

Tomatillo Recipes

Fresh Tomatillo SalsaThis is the easiest thing in the world ... throw fresh cilantro, garlic, green chilis, onion chunks, and tomatillos into a food processor. Run the processor until it's as smooth or chunky as you want.

Use whatever proportions you want: I usually use equal proportions of tomatillos and onions, with what most people would consider far too much garlic and cilantro, and enough serranos to add a bit of heat.

If you have leftover grilled chicken or fish, stir chunks of the leftovers into the salsa and it's instant salad, or a sandwich filling.

Grilled Tomatillo Salsa Again, this is not chemistry ... use the proportions you prefer.

  1. Husk and wash the tomatillos.
  2. Put tomatillos, seeded green chilis, a couple cloves of garlic, and big chunks of onion on a baking sheet or in a big shallow baking dish.
    You can also put the vegetables in a grilling basket and grill them over charcoal.
  3. Broil for about 5 minutes, turn the stuff over and broil some more. The ingredients should start to brown and get soft.
  4. Dump the broiled stuff into a food processor with some fresh cilantro, salt, and lime juice.
  5. Run the processor until it's as smooth or chunky as you want.
  6. Chill it if you want to.
  7. Add salt if you want to.

This is a good dip for chips, or you can serve it with grilled fish or chicken as a salsa on the side. I often pour the salsa over chicken or fish and bake it.

Slow-Roasted Tomatillos: Follow any of the recipes for slow-roasted tomatos, but substitute tomatillos. They freeze well. Toss a half cup or so of these into soup or a pilaf. They also make a great dip, chopped finely and stirred into yogurt or sour cream.


lottatrvlr said...

We live in the California Mother Lode and have ONE humongous tomatillo plant producing like crazy. They’re a late harvest, but we still have jalapenos and Serranos, so all is well. Karen

Kelly Johnson said...

I live in Colorado and we had a huge hail storm that wiped out our garden on July 20th, or so I thought. : ) Most of my garden has come back, but the tomatillos and tomatoes are no where near ready to harvest, and we have oodles of them! Unfotunately it got down to 33 last night and we're expecting frost Sunday. Here's the question, can you harvest tomatillos early and still use them? Some of them are still tiny inside their husks and some are closer to the husk size, but not quite. Also, they aren't getting near enough sun during the day, now that the days are shorter and their proximity to our home. My house is shading them. : ( Also, I have tons f cherry tomatoes as well, shouldI just get them off the vine and let them ripen inside?

Constance Blizzard said...

This is my first year growing tomatillos, and I put 8 plants down, as I thought for sure I'd bungle something.

Needless to say, I've canned 10 quarts of salsa verde, which I love, but that's probably more salsa than I'll eat in my life. I could make nachos for my entire town and still not get through it.

So I asked Master Gardener Google about freezing the rest, and he sent me here. My god, I hope you're right!!

Lazy Gardens said...

Constance -
They freeze well, either cooked (mash them into a freezer container in recipe-size portions) or washed and frozen without the husk.

I toss them into a gallon freezer bag, freeze them, and take out as many rock-hard tomatillos as I need for the recipe.

Anonymous said...

I ended up freezing a lot of tomatillo "sauce" -- I basically washed, chopped, and simmered them and then put in ziploc bags in the freezer. And they mostly sat there, until one day it occurred to me that I can use them to make refried beans. Such a flavorful quick and easy meal that the kids loved! I would make the beans the night before (or use beans from a can) and will take out a bag of tomatillo sauce from the freezer; saute the beans with the sauce and some onions and some garlic and if you have some cilantro... Put on tortillas and add maybe some shredded cheese and lettuce and there you have it, a lovely meal!

Anonymous said...

Regarding bugs and tomatillos, if growing them, watch out for whitefly. It grows on broccoli and other brassicas; sometimes it will transfer over onto the husks of the tomatillo plants.

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of tomatilla salsa before I was given fresh tomatillas from a friends garden. I looked up the way to fix them and was directed to this website. It has really educated me on the "how to's" to produce a great sauce. Thanks to all who contributed the info as my first attempt turned out very well. I even have some to freeze. Now to enjoy with many ideas on my mind.

Anonymous said...

I made white chili with tomatillos and ground turkey. It was delicious

Amber Allen said...

I've noticed that my tomatillo plants tend to sprout smaller tomatillos and keep spreading the vines. When it gets to be about 3 weeks to a month and a half before the end of the growing season, I need to trim of the flowing ends in order for the fruit to fully ripen and full out the husks. Otherwise, I have all these tiny tomatillos and not many full size.

Lazy Gardens said...

Amber - yes, they do that. Where the growing season is almost year round it's not as much of a problem.

I usually prune them to keep them from taking over the garden.