Beyond the Backyard
Tomatillos…The Taste of Mexico
By Jenny Wildman
I was horrified when I first heard that some of my favorite vegetables, potatoes, aubergines (eggplant), tomatoes, and all peppers are part of the extensive nightshade family, Solanaceae, most of which can be toxic to humans. As children we were taught to avoid the pernicious deadly nightshade (Bella Donna) and thinking of anything as mildly related was somewhat unnerving. This is the plant dwale that contains poisonous alkaloids responsible for witches flying, murder and mayhem, delirium and death. Yet it was historically an important ingredient in medicine and still today is used in some pharmaceuticals.
One branch of the nightshade family is Physalis which translated means bladder, as their common characteristic is the fruit being encased in a papery husk (the calyx). Some are ornamental as with Physalis alkekengi, the bright orange Chinese lantern. Others like Physalis peruviana, Cape gooseberry, ground cherry or golden berry, are both decorative and edible and affectionately called “love in a cage.” The tomatillo (little tomato) Physalis philadelphicaor Physalis ixocarpa is an essential ingredient to Mexican and Guatemalan cooking best known for salsa verde which graces every table. The tomatillo, miltomatl, or Mexican husk tomato is related to the tomato and was once generally more popular in this region. Often touted as an important food of the Aztecs and Maya that originated in Mexico, excavations in Teotihuacan, Mexico evidence its use from 900 BC – 1540 AD . However it is possible that the Conquistadors of the New World brought the tomatillo seeds to Mexico from further south as in 2013 a 52 million year old fossilized tomatillo was unearthed in Laguna del Hunco, Argentina suggesting an earlier origin. Spain lost its interest in the little green fruit as the red tomato gained popularity there. Although successfully grown in many countries the fruit/ vegetable did not muster up much interest by the consumers and again commercial growing declined.
Mexico has been a loyal supporter of their heritage ingredient and now the culinary demands of the immigrants have introduced new tastes to the USA and Canada where tortillas and tacos have become every day fare and chilies and tomatillos have spiced up the American palette. High demand in California has made El Fornio the tomatillo capital of USA. I am pleased that they are gaining renewed interest throughout the world but wondering why they are sadly lacking locally, considering that we do have many residents who immigrated from neighboring countries. I am forced to resort to bottles and cans which pale in comparison to fresh fruits. In some states of Mexico there are wild varieties that are gaining recognition as they are harvested and taken to market.
Tomatillos are easy to grow from seed, need full sun in well-drained soil, not overly demanding and start producing abundantly in about 100 days. Small-scale production could be an excellent fresh retail item increasing our gastronomic offerings. Tests show that an individual plant can produce 200 fruits in a season. They are staked much like tomatoes, spreading about five feet wide and five feet tall, fairly pest-resistant but are not self-fertilizing so you need more than one plant. Dill and fennel are not good companion plants as they contain a type of oil that seeps into the soil, which can cause the tomatillo to get root rot. Basil, cilantro and parsley are great companion plants warding off unwanted visitors and marigolds are good at attracting pollinators. The husk tomato is an annual and comes in colours ranging from green to yellow and dark purple. Only the fruit is eaten as the rest of the plant is poisonous. Some are more sour, others sweeter and fruitier. Unlike the tomato the flesh of the tomatillo is firm and dense. The taste is acidic and can be eaten raw or cooked in soups and stews. It is often added to cut the heat of the hot capsicum and makes a delicious accompaniment to pork dishes.
The husk and the sticky coating on the fruit help protect it whilst growing. They are ready to pick when the husk begins to burst.The husk is discarded although it does have some use infused in tamales but “when in doubt throw it out”. Wash off the sticky fruit and it is now ready to use. The fruit can last in the refrigerator for two weeks and can also be frozen. The health benefits of eating tomatillos are numerous; they contain antibacterial and phytochemicals that effectively tackle inflammation and some cancers. Positive ingredients include: fiber, vitamins A, C and K, niacin, potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium, within a low calorie tasty fruit. Many of the sauces, such as salsa verde and guacamole, are made with raw fruit but roasting and blanching brings out their flavor. This taste is unique and really does not have a substitute ingredient.
Finally, save some seeds! Squeeze some seeds into a glass container and set aside for 3 days and the jelly-like covering will begin to rot and mould. Now add water and stir. The good seeds will sink; the others will float to the top and can be poured off. Keep flushing until you have only clean seeds. Spread them out onto a glass tray to dry for about a week and a half. They can last for years but make sure you label them and give some to your friends so we can all begin to grow and enjoy tomatillos.
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