A Taste For… Tomatillo | Tomatillo Salsa

From its name you might think it’s a type of tomato. It certainly looks a lot like one, once its husk is peeled away.

In fact, although the tomatillo is a member of the expansive nightshade family (which includes tomatoes as well as potatoes, aubergines, chillis and peppers), it actually falls within the physalis genus, making it more closely related to the cape gooseberry.

Like the cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is a smooth-skinned round fruit enveloped in a delicate, paper-thin, lantern-shaped husk. Green and pliant on the plant, once picked the husk starts to dry out, turning brown and brittle; the greener the husk, the more freshly picked the tomatillo.

Both cape gooseberries and tomatillos hark originally from Central and South America and, indeed, tomatillos are a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine. They are eaten fried, grilled or boiled in many different preparations and are a core ingredient of salsa verde.

Ripe tomatillo fruits can range from yellow to red and purple but green is the most common colour, making them look even more like unripe tomatoes.

IMG_5169 - Homegrown Tomatillos on Kavey Eats - 1

The similarity of their names is no coincidence; both words come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, with tomatillos originally being known as tomātl (fat water) and tomatoes as xitomatl (fat water with navel). When the Spaniards exported the tomato to the rest of the world, they took with them the name tomate.

But unlike the tomato, the tomatillo has not yet become a common global ingredient. Although imported Mexican fresh tomatillos are sometimes available in Europe, it has often been easier to find the fruit in tinned form.

However, in recent years, specialist farmers have started to grow tomatillos here in the UK. Edible Ornamentals, a chilli specialist in Bedfordshire, is the largest tomatillo grower in the UK and sells the fruit commercially. Owners Shawn and Joanna Plumb once lived in San Antonio, Texas, where they became very familiar with tomatillos along with many varieties of chilli. Mexican cooking is very popular in Texas.

Joanna is an enormous fan of tomatillos, explaining that “the flavour is like nothing I have ever tasted. It is a cross between a tomato, a cucumber and a water melon. Very refreshing.” Although she loves eating the fruits straight off the plant, she also enjoys them in a traditional green salsa.

Of course, one sure-fireway of getting your hands on fresh tomatillos is to grow them yourself. “Tomatillos grow like triffids,” warns Joanna, and recommends training them up a vertical support so they don’t take over your garden. You will need at least two plants as they pollinate each other.

Keen gardeners can buy tomatillo plants directly from Edible Ornamentals’ nursery in Chawston, Bedfordshire and visiting the farm also offers the opportunity of a chilli tour and Pick Your Own. You can also grow from seed – available from a number of seed catalogue companies. Tomatillos usually start fruiting in July or August and, if you grow them in a greenhouse or polytunnel, continue until the frost comes along.

If you are able to find fresh tomatillos, the good news is that they last for a couple of weeks in the fridge; up to twice that if the husks are removed. They can also be frozen, whole or chopped. And, of course, you can cook them and preserve in jars. It’s worth noting that tomatillos have a high pectin content, making them a great ingredient to add to jams and chutneys.

IMG_5185 - Homegrown Tomatillos on Kavey Eats - 2 IMG_1798 - Homegrown Tomatillos on Kavey Eats - 1
Homegrown tomatillos, fresh tomatillos in the kitchen of a London-based Mexican restaurant chain

Tomatillo Salsa Recipe

by Joanna Plumb of Edible Ornamentals

Ingredients
10 tomatillos with husk removed, finely diced
Half a finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 serrano chile pepper, minced
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
0.5 teaspoon ground cumin
0.5 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Method

  • Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, and Serrano chilli into a bowl.
  • Season with coriander, oregano, cumin and salt.
  • Leave for about 30 minutes and then serve.
  • Can be used as a side dish, in fajitas or as a dip for tortilla chips.

You may also be interested in Joanna’s chilli growing tips, which she shared with us during our visit.

Tomatillo Salsa and an introduction to tomatillos

This piece was written in 2014 and first published in Good Things magazine. ©Kavita Favelle.

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31 Comments to "A Taste For… Tomatillo | Tomatillo Salsa"

  1. kaveyeats

    I’ve just seen Sejal’s comment about finding them in two places in North London recently, so looks like they are becoming a little easier to find, in London at least.

    Reply
  2. Sejal

    I love tomatillos, I think Mexican food isn’t complete without them. They used to be almost impossible to find here, but I’ve recently bought them from two places in north-west London, near my house: West Hampstead farmers market, and Panzer’s deli in St John’s Wood.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    That’s great to know! When I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, they were not easy to find fresh here, though Edible Ornamentals had been growing them for wholesale buyers for a while, and were also selling them fresh to customers who visited the farm. They sell seedlings too. It’s good to know these are now becoming available in specialist vendors in London.

    Reply
  3. Claire Jessiman

    I first came across these a couple of years ago at a farmers market and had no idea what they were. Bought them anyway and made a fab salsa.

    Reply
  4. janie

    Can’t believe how perfect that is for timing Kavey! I was reading a recipe book last night in bed and was too tired to google what a tomatillo was, and it’s as if you knew! Spooky 😀
    Janie x

    Reply
  5. Camilla

    I’ve never had a tomatillo, so really want to try these now. Sounds like a fabulous refreshing recipe perfect for pepping up summer dishes:-) Will have to check out Joanna’s chilli growing tips as I need them:-)

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Hope you can find some to try Camilla, I think you’d have fun experimenting. They’re good for jams / chutneys too!

    Reply
  6. kaveyeats

    I don’t make it often enough, always forget until I’m reminded by a gorgeous colourful photo!

    Reply
  7. Jeanne Horak-Druiff

    Mmm, fell in love with fresh tomatillo salsa in Mexico. They are fab, and I love their little paper lanterns… Thanks for the recipe – now to get Nick to grow some tomatillos 😉

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    They grow really well. Both the green photos above are our homegrown ones, on the plant and just harvested. The brown ones are in a restaurant kitchen. You can buy seedlings from Edible Ornamentals, though there may be other sellers of seedlings or seeds.

    Reply
  8. Elizabeth

    Intriguing! I’ve never tried these before but they sound great. Must look out for them or ask my veg box growers to try growing them for me. (I haven’t got green fingers myself!)

    Reply
  9. msmarmitelover

    Been growing them for years now. They grow well in the UK. Had a recipe for tomatillo salsa in my 2011 book Supper Club.
    You can also roast the tomatillos for salsa asada.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes I’ve roasted for salsa before. We grew them a few years ago, the two green photos above are our homegrown on the plant and just harvested.

    Reply
  10. April J Harris

    I have heard of tomatillos – and had salsa made with them abroad – but didn’t know you could get them here in the UK now! That’s wonderful news as your salsa looks absolutely delicious! I hope to make it soon.

    Reply

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