Tomatillos are a rarity in Australia. You won’t find them in standard supermarkets so growing them at home is likely your only option to add this interesting ingredient to your cooking repertoire.
Tomatillos are part of the nightshade family alongside tomatoes, potatoes and cape gooseberries. They are sometimes also called Mexican husk tomatoes but they are a completely different species to tomatoes. They are an important part of traditional Mexican cuisine particularly with recipes such as salsa verde (green salsa) and chilaquiles verdes. But they are also useful to have on hand in cooking other cuisines when you want to add a savoury and slightly sour flavour which can really brighten up a dish.
Tomatillos are an annual plant grown in spring/summer. We grow a purple tomatillo variety here at Loganberry Forest (get seeds here) which produces fruit with yellow, green and purple colours. Start your seeds in punnets at the same time as your tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants etc and plant out when the risk of frost has passed and the seedlings have at least a few true leaves. I find they germinate and grow really fast, much faster than even tomatoes.
The plants form pretty yellow flowers that require cross-pollination with other tomatillo plants to reliably form fruit so you will need to grow several plants close together. Pollination is only by insects and for this reason they will generally be much more successful if grown outdoors rather than in a greenhouse. At Loganberry Forest Homestead we have tried growing them in both our large greenhouse where we do regularly see bees and outdoors and found they did brilliant outdoors but very poorly in the greenhouse. In addition to poor pollination in the greenhouse they also suffered a bad case of downy powdery mildew from the extra humidity and heat which the outdoor plants didn’t have. So learn from us and plant yours outdoors.
The fruit forms in a husk which slowly fills and ultimately splits open when the tomatillos are ready for harvest, or you may find some dropped off the plant on the ground which are also good and ready.
Tomatillos can be eaten raw or cooked. They are quite savoury in flavour and more sour than tomatoes, so personally I prefer them cooked in recipes. One of my favourite ways to eat them are sliced in half and roasted with avocado oil and cinnamon along with other mixed vegetables (whatever I happen to have on hand such as sweet potato, tomatoes, broccoli stems, garlic, capsicum, beetroot etc.). Roasted mixed veggies like this make a wonderful dinner side or meal prep for the week ahead to add to lunch salads, pasta dishes etc.
They also work really well in any other dishes you may make which are flexible in the vegetables used. For example chickpea and vegetable Indian curries or one of my favourites: Moroccan tagine.
Moroccan Chicken, Pumpkin & Tomatillo Tagine
Tomatillos are not a traditional Moroccan ingredient. However they work really well in this recipe as their tangy flavour is a great substitute for preserved lemons when summer is providing an abundance of tomatillos and you may have run out of your winter stash of lemons. Feel free to substitute any of the vegetables in this recipe or chickpeas or lima beans for the chicken to make it vegan. This is a re-interpretation of a recipe I learnt in a cooking school in Marrakesh.
500g of chicken thighs cut into big chunks
About 4 big tomatoes chopped roughly
About a cup of tomatillos chopped at least in half
2 cups of chopped pumpkin. You can leave the skin on if using a thin skinned variety like kobocha.
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 tbs minced ginger
1/2 tbs cumin ground
1 tbs turmeric powder
1/2 tbs cinnamon ground
1/2 tbs coriander seed ground
1/2 tbs paprika
black pepper and salt to taste
3 tbs olive oil
Put all the ingredients in a tagine or heavy based pot (eg dutch oven) with a lid. Give it a good mix. Cover and cook for around 1hr on medium heat or until the pumpkin is soft and the tomatoes and tomatillos have broken down into a kind of sauce. If you want a thicker sauce remove the lid of the cooking vessel several minutes before removing from the heat.
This is delicious served with bread to mop up the sauce or you could serve it over couscous, millet or quinoa.
This recipe is loosely based on the tested Ball Mason recipe for salsa verde so you can be confident it is safe for canning as no ingredients related to the acidity level have been replaced.
This makes 3 x 1cup (I use the Ball Mason or Orchard Road half pint jelly jars for this or whatever recycled jars I have on had of a similar size).
900g de-husked tomatillos
1 medium sized onion chopped
1 chopped chilli or if unavailable then dried chilli powder
3 garlic cloves crushed
1/4 cup lime juice
1/8 cup mint leaves (or coriander if you have access or a combination. I use mint as it is what growing at the time of tomatillo harvest)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Put all the ingredients except the herbs into a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook until all the ingredients are fully softened and beginning to breakdown. Add chopped herbs.
Ladle into hot, clean canning jars leaving required 1.5cm headspace. Process by water-bath canning for 20minutes adjusting for altitude. Turn off heat and remove lid pot and let jars remain in canner for an additional 5minutes before removing and storing.
This salsa will keep in the pantry at least 1 year provided the lids have sealed correctly. If you are unfamiliar with water-bath canning methods then read the information here.
This salsa is a delicious addition to all Mexican meals.
Saving Tomatillo Seeds
Only use fully mature (ie tomatillos that have outgrown their husk) for seed saving. Unlike tomatoes there is no gelatinous coating around the seeds so it is unnecessary to ferment the seeds and pulp before cleaning and drying. Slice open a tomatillo and scoop out the seeds into a small sieve or mesh tea strainer. Push any pulp through the sieve or wash the seeds off the tomatillo flesh catching them with the sieve. Tip the seeds onto paper towel or cotton fabric and spread to a single layer. Allow to dry completely and then store.
Tomatillo seeds should last at least 3 years if stored in cool and dry conditions away from direct light. This method also applies to saving cape gooseberry seed.