Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Successfully Growing Tomatillos by Elizabeth Buckingham

As a professional chef and an avid gardener, I am always interested in trying new vegetables in my garden. Each growing season I set a goal to grow at least five new vegetables or herbs that I’ve never grown before, and this year the tomatillo made that list. I know that the tomatillo is probably not considered particularly exotic here in Colorado; our Mexican influences and love of Mexican cuisine means that many local gardeners grow this vegetable every season. Although I’d used tomatillos numerous times in my professional life I had not yet grown my own, and I was excited to try it out.

    Wikipedia defines the tomatillo as follows:
“The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) is a plant of the nightshade family, related to the Cape gooseberry, bearing small, spherical and green or green-purple fruit of the same name. Tomatillos, referred to as green tomato (Spanish: tomate verde) in Mexico, are a staple in Mexican cuisine. Tomatillos are grown as annuals throughout the Western Hemisphere. The tomatillo fruit is surrounded by an inedible, paper-like husk formed from the calyx. As the fruit matures, it fills the husk and can split it open by harvest. The husk turns brown, and the fruit can be any of a number of colors when ripe, including yellow, red, green, or even purple. Tomatillos are the key ingredient in fresh and cooked Latin American green sauces. The freshness and greenness of the husk are quality criteria. Fruit should be firm and bright green, as the green color and tart flavour are the main culinary contributions of the fruit. Purple and red-ripening cultivars often have a slight sweetness, unlike the green- and yellow-ripening cultivars, and are therefore somewhat more suitable for fruit-like uses like jams and preserves. Like their close relatives Cape gooseberries, tomatillos have a high pectin content. Tomatillo plants are highly self-incompatible: two or more plants are needed for proper pollination, thus isolated tomatillo plants rarely set fruit.”

  With that helpful information in mind, I purchased a number of different pepper and tomatillo plants at the excellent Master Gardener Plant Sale in May. I kept all of these in the sunroom for a few weeks then gradually hardened the seedlings off outside, and finally transplanted into the ground on May 29.  Unfortunately, somewhere between getting the plants home and transplanting them, labels were lost and what I thought were peppers were actually tomatillos. (Experienced gardeners, please forgive me for not being able to distinguish between a tomatillo and a pepper seedling – I am still quite new to this gardening!) The result of this story is that I had substantially more tomatillos but substantially fewer peppers than I thought…and was slightly worried to find out from a gardener friend a few days later that apparently tomatillos are “voracious self-seeders.” Who knows how many I’ll have next year?

Now, late in August, I am finally reaping my tomatillo harvest and hugely enjoying the results. Through no intentional effort I managed to stagger-plant my tomatillos (in three separate areas of my vegetable gardens), and as such am enjoying a gradual harvest without becoming inundated. On my older plants, the husks are starting to dry up and turn brown, and the fruits nearly fall off the vine when touched. All of my plants have thus far produced green fruit, although I would love to see the purple cultivars and hope to find those next season! I was also surprised to find that even my one isolated plant has set fruit, despite warnings against individual plantings.

I am harvesting the fruits as needed and have thus far used them with great success in fresh summer salads with chunks of tomato, cucumber, feta, red onion, basil and a simple vinaigrette. Fresh recipes such as this composed salad are exactly why chefs love this season so much – it is so easy to take just a few pristine ingredients and make an amazing dish.

   I plan to make salsa with my tomatillos, of course, but as yet haven’t harvested enough to make a big batch. I taught myself to can and preserve last summer so I’ll definitely include wood-roasted tomatillos when I grill my other ingredients for my “smoky salsa,” which also includes onions, peppers and tomatoes. I also will make a brightly-flavored (and brightly-colored) sauce for grilled chicken which will include quickly sautéed onions, garlic, and tomatillos, perhaps finished with fresh chopped cilantro or parsley. It is important to remember that the tart, crisp flavor of the tomatillos is the fruit’s primary attraction and should be left mostly intact. I have found that the tomatillo’s fresh taste makes a terrific addition to just about any summer dish, and I am looking forward to finding many more ways to incorporate the tomatillo in my summer menus as well as my preserving plans.

I can now confidently include tomatillos on my ever-increasing list entitled “Things I’ve Grown Successfully.” I am thrilled to have this interesting and unique plant as part of my summer harvest and if you haven’t yet tried tomatillos, I would definitely encourage you to try a few plants next season!