Friday, October 5, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 5: Tomatillo

Although these are withing the great Nightshade family, and are closely related to tomatoes, they are in fact, not tomatoes.  Some confusion has been created on this matter owed to some Mexican cookbooks translated tomate verde and literally "green tomato," when what the recipe was really calling for where these tasty little devils.  Of course, back in the day, when authentic Mexican ingredients were difficult to find, many old Mexican cookbook written for the American market conceded that at best "Gringa" cooks would be able to find actual green tomatoes to use in these recipes.  Mind you, I'm not knocking green tomatoes!!  They have a solid place in Native American cooking and an even bigger place in Southern cuisine!!  I have some in the fridge as I write.  But, for Mexican food, they are really not a good substitute.

Though they are a close relative of the tomato, they are much closer relatives to other "husked" member of the nightshade family.  Those commercially "exploited" include the Cape Gooseberry, The Ground Cherry, and the so-called Chinese Lantern, which are all native to the New World and belong to the nightshade sub-family of Physalis, which means that they are fruits that grow inside a protective husk.  [Note:  there is more than one physalis that is called "Chinese Lantern" one of which really is native to Asia].  As one cookbook puts its, they all "come gift wrapped."  Some grow wild, and are quite wide-spread.  I have Ground Cherries growing in my yard and they make a nice free addition to salads, just tossed in.  Tomatillos have become a popular garden plant here in the south, in part, because they are largely drought resistant, and, man, have we been enduring one hell of a drought down here!  As a result of this, and predation by birds spreading their seeds around, tomatillos now grow "wild" in vacant lots and other disturbed areas.

To make matters more confusing, some of the names used above for fruits of this same family are occasionally used to describe the tomatillo; to make matter worse, they are also called "Mexican tomatoes."  Actual tomatoes are used far more in Mexico, than these are.  Additionally they come in at least two colors:  the well known green ones and the lesser known and small purple ones.  They are variously called "husk tomato," "Jamberry," and "Husk Cherry." Some of these names give away a secret about these little fruits.  Though they are almost always used in savory dishes, especially salsas, they are also used in sweet concoctions and make a great sweet preserve.  There is also a subtle difference in taste between the two colors, with the purple ones being more acidic and therefore, more tart.

Purple Tomatillos seen here next to cherry tomatoes

Curiously, these are one of the few fruits (most often referred to as a vegetable, like tomatoes) that actually turn green when they are ripe, though when slightly overripe they take on a yellowish hue (this is the state that makes them perfect for jam).  Unlike uncooked tomatoes, they freeze well, whole or sliced, though I find that if you want to used them for a fresh sauce or relish, really the fruit product is best, but the frozen fruits work great for most other uses.

Tomatillos are actually native to Mexico, unlike a number of staple ingredient that are thought of as Mexican including chiles and chocolate.  Interestingly their Latin name is Physalis philadelphica.  They were introduced into what is now the US sometime in the early 20'th century, when people from Mexico began to plant them in and around Los Angeles.  They eventually spread all over the warmer parts of the New World and then on to warm spots around the globe.  Despite that they are grown in international garden, I can't really find much in the way of international usage for them culinary...maybe they are grown as ornamental?  They are an excellent source of vitamin C.

As far as uses for tomatillos go, the traditional call for them is in sauces of various sorts.  From raw relish type salsas to the base for complicated green mole (Nahuatl:  molli).  As mentioned above, they have been made into sweet, especially preserves.  This was something that American cooks started doing with them in the 1930's and 1940's, that interesting tradition has fallen off since the the 1950's, when Tomatillos were largely forgotten by American in cooks until the 1990's.  I've not noticed a lot of innovation with them in modern native chefs who work in high end restaurants, like you see with other much more traditional native ingredients such as mesquite meal or tepary beans.  I have fried them in place of unripe real green tomatoes in the southern tradition and really liked them!  In some ways they can be easier to use in this fashion than the traditional green 'maters.  I don't know what some one could come up with really...tomatillo foam?? Distillate of Tomatillo, maybe Grant Achatz has already done this...who knows??  

Now that's a grill full of tomatillos!!
Happy Days Of The Dead!!

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