In our little greenhouse the harvest season has begun: the first round of chiles has been picked, roasted and skinned, waiting to be turned into chile stew, the heirloom tomatoes are producing fruit faithfully, it’s amazing the size some of them have – the other day Martin and me shared a tomato for lunch…- but there are four plants quietly growing in there that I can say of, with conviction, won’t be found in many greenhouses in Denmark: tomatillos. They’re native to Mexico and though they’re almost as commonplace in many US grocery stores as their distant cousin, the tomato, they’re a rarity here and cannot be bought in any shop for any price, but this year they’re growing in my greenhouse, and they’re ripe.
Tomatillos, they like company. They don’t self-pollinate, so there needs to be at least one other plant nearby, else they won’t set fruit. Of our tiny little seedlings four survived (peppercat, our black house tiger, is responsible for at least one death: she ate it) and after the endless winter was done with us in May, we put the fragile plants out in the greenhouse and crossed our fingers – they didn’t look like much, to be telling the truth. It’s amazing what some sunshine, water and horse manure can do for you when you’re a tomatillo; in a very short amount of time, they had grown extensively and began to divide and conquer the greenhouse – they make the most beautifully shaped yellow flowers and the husks that the fruit grow to fill look like so many little green lanterns hanging from their branches – they even forgave us the three weeks we were on vacation; something the chiles had a little harder time with this year. So, armed with a pair of scissors and a pot, I went to harvest tomatillos; there’s enough to make me happy and a salsa – and there are more on the way.
Tomatillos are good raw, when picked slightly under ripe, they have a tart, fresh, green flavor that goes well with grilled things like fish or steak, the green version of a fresh tomato salsa. If you wait with picking them until they turn color to white, yellow or purple, respectively, they will be sweeter and pretty good for making jam. The ones you’ll be able to find in the store are bright green and tart flavored, good for savory dishes. The way I like them best is roasted, along with onions, garlic and some hottish chiles and then blended to become a saucy salsa that is way too versatile to be put into the “serve with tortilla chips” category only, although it does well there, too. There are a couple of other possibilities to make your taste buds happy, see what they say to cedar plank grilled salmon with roasted tomatillo salsa, or maybe in – and on – chicken enchiladas; in a burrito is pretty good, too, or with some cilantro and crisp, fresh white onion for that extra bite on carnitas.
Note: tomatillos are high in pectin (the stuff that makes jelly jell) and the finished sauce will most likely set up on you; don’t despair when you can stick your spoon in the bowl the next day and lift the whole thing out, en masse, just stir in a little water to loosen it up and bring it to the right consistency again.
When you peel the tomatillos, you’ll notice a sticky substance covering the green fruits – never mind, just wash it off, it’s bug repellent…..just kidding. It’s step two of a tomatillos’ self-defense mechanism: bugs that make it past the ill-tasting husk (step one), or crawl in through the opening in the bottom of the husk get stuck there and expire. The original flypaper.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
makes about 500 ml (2 cups)
500 g (1 lb) tomatillos
1 big white onion
4 cloves of garlic
2 jalapeño or serrano chiles
1 handful cilantro
juice of 1 lime
A thought on chiles: I used jalapeños in my salsa, because they decided to be ripe at the same time as the tomatillos and I like their clean, fresh flavor, but I find their heat level a bit erratic; some are hot, some are not. Serrano chiles seem to be more reliable in the heat department, they’re just hot. So, be careful when adding the chiles, it’s real hard to pick blended chiles out of a salsa – once in, the damage is done.
1. Peel the husks off the tomatillos and give them a wash to get rid of most of the stickiness. Peel the onion and slice into thick rounds.
2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and line the part where you plan to roast the tomatillos, onion and chiles with aluminum foil to reduce clean-up-mess later. I like to use my cast iron pizza pan – nice and heavy for retaining and distributing the heat and plenty of real estate for all your roasting needs.
3. Put the tomatillos, onions and chiles on the foil and the garlic cloves, papery husks and all, on the pan, they don’t stick. Roast the vegetables until nicely charred and soft, about 10 minutes.
4. Remove from the pan, peel the garlic and put everything in the blender along with any juice the tomatillos might have given off. Add the cilantro, some salt and the lime juice and blend to a coarse puré. Careful with the chiles, if you don’t like it too hot, first add one and then upgrade; adjust the taste with more salt, lime juice or chile. If the salsa is too thick, add some water and blend to the consistency you like best, chunky or smooth, no rules.