The essential ingredient in the green salsas of Mexican cuisine is not the tomato but the tomatillo—a fruit with a citrusy, sweet flavor. Dainty paper husks encase the tomatillos, and by late summer, what seems like billions of fruits dangle from the plant's branches, ensuring that you can more than satisfy your salsa cravings by summer's end.
Native to Mexico and domesticated by the Aztecs around 800 b.c., tomatillos are one of our most ancient vegetables. Today, you can grow varieties of the same two species the Aztecs grew. Physalis ixocarpa is commonly sold in markets and has large (up to 2 ½-inch-diameter) tart green fruits, which ripen to pale yellow. P. philadelphica produces sweeter, marble-size purple fruits. This species is a common field weed in Mexico, but it is no less delicious for being a weed.
Choosing a site
Select a spot in full, hot sun, with well-drained, moderately rich soil. Tomatillos are lighter feeders than tomatoes, and while they are tough, semiwild plants, they do not fare well in soggy, poorly drained soil. Work a couple of inches of compost into the soil before planting, and fork deeply to improve drainage. Raised beds work great for tomatillos in gardens with heavy clay soil.
Start tomatillos indoors six to eight weeks before your frost-free date. Harden off indoor-started plants before transplanting outdoors. Set out at the same time you plant your tomatoes, when all danger of frost is past and the soil is thoroughly warm.
Much like their cousin the tomato, tomatillos sprout roots along their stems, so they profit from being planted deeply. The indeterminate, sprawling plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall and at least as wide, so space the plants 3 feet apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Plan to give them support unless you want to pick the fruits off the ground. Two to four plants are sufficient for fresh use.
Tomatillos are hugely prolific and fruit nonstop until laid low by frost. Apply 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch, such as grass clippings, to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture. Although moderately drought-tolerant, tomatillos do best with an inch or two of water per week. If space is limited, pinch off the growing tips to control spread.
You'll be preparing your first salsa verde about 75 to 100 days after transplanting. Pick the fruits when they fill out their husks and the husks just begin to split. If the fruits feel like mini marbles inside loose husks, wait awhile, but harvest before they turn pale yellow, as they become seedier and their flavor loses the desired tangy acidity as they ripen. Store harvested tomatillos in their husks at room temperature for up to a week or in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
'Toma Verde' is the standard large-fruited variety, with golf-ball-size, tart green fruits. Extra early at 60 days from transplanting.
'Purple' has small, intensely purple fruits and green husks. Highly decorative and long-storing. 65 days.
Though tomatillos seem exotic, they are ideal for beginning gardeners, because they rarely suffer disease and insect pest problems. Cage the plants off the ground to allow air to circulate—which protects them from diseases, such as early blight—and to keep them out of reach of slugs and snails. The plants aren't as heavy as tomato plants, and the undersize wire cages typically sold for tomatoes work fine for supporting tomatillos.
Lots of Flowers But No Fruit!
Tomatillos are not self-pollinating like their tomato cousins. In order for the flowers to set fruit, you must grow at least 2 tomatilla plants. Otherwise, you'll be left with lots of pretty little yellow flowers and none of the tasty green fruit.
Preparing tomatillos for cooking or storage is easy. Just remove the papery husks and wash the sticky fruits inside. Tomatillos need no coring or seeding before being incorporated into your favorite recipe. To freeze, simply place washed, dry fruits in freezer bags and seal. Although tomatillos are usually cooked, they can also be eaten raw.
Newbie hint: Harvest all your tomatillos to prevent a forest of self-sown seedlings next year. Consign overripe and rotten fruits to your hot compost heap.
Master’s tip: When frost threatens, pull up your tomatillo plants and hang them upside down in an unheated garage. The fruits will keep for at least a couple of months.
Ripe and ready: Pick tomatillos when the fruit splits its husk open.
Garden-fresh tomatillos add zest and unique flavor to hot sauces, salsas, and dips. Break out your favorite Mexican cookbook and try some new recipes, or use these ideas as inspiration:
Make a lower-calorie guacamole by replacing half the avocado with chopped raw tomatillos.
Smoky salsa verde.
Roast a large unpeeled onion, 5 unpeeled garlic cloves, 2 to 5 chile peppers (such as Serrano, poblano, or Anaheim), and 1 pound tomatillos on a charcoal grill or in a heavy, ungreased skillet on top of the stove until charred and soft. Peel the onion, garlic, and peppers and cut into chunks. Pulse all ingredients briefly in a food processor along with sea salt, a handful of cilantro, and a generous squirt of fresh lime juice. Serve with chips or use to smother cheese enchiladas.
Crisp fried tomatillos.
Halve the fruits. Beat an egg with a half cup of milk. Prepare a shallow bowl of seasoned flour and another of cornmeal. Toss the fruits first in flour, then in the egg mixture, then roll in cornmeal. Fry in olive oil in a nonstick skillet until crisp and golden.
Puree 2½ cups raw tomatillos with the leaves of 10 sprigs of cilantro. Measure 2 cups of this puree. In a medium saucepan, sauté a finely chopped small onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft. Add 1 cup rice and cook, stirring, 5 minutes longer. Add the puree and 1 teaspoon salt, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook 20 to 30 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed.
Terrific trio: Tomatillos, cilantro, and onion are a classic salsa combo.