by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Southwestern, Tex-Mex, Mexican - the cuisine of the US southwest goes by many names. Tortillas, salsas, and chile peppers are much more likely to show up in the markets in other parts of the country now than in the past, and everyone has now heard of burritos, tacos, and refried beans. Many folks are familiar with green salsa or chili verde, but incorrectly assume they're made with green, aka unripe, tomatoes.
Those green soups and sauces are made with tomatillos (toe-ma-TEE-yos). The confusion is understandable. The word "tomatillo" looks like it could mean a kind of little tomato. Instead, the tomatillo grows inside a green husk, somewhat reminiscent of ground cherries or Chinese lantern plants.
For a gardener, the annual plants are easy to grow. I start a couple of seeds inside in early spring, the same time I start my tomato, pepper, and eggplants, and set them out after the last frost (they can be direct-seeded, but start out so tiny that I find it easier to start them inside. They'll also volunteer if you don't clean them up well in the fall). Once established the plants will thrive despite abuse that can kill other, tenderer, crops. They're drought-tolerant, but lots of water just makes them grow even faster. The light frosts in early fall won't faze them, nor will summer heat. Mine have never been bothered by bugs, critters, or disease. They do take up a bit of space - they're a sprawling, almost weedy-looking plant. I set out two plants close together, allowing them a space at least 4 feet square. They're quite prolific too - two plants provide enough for the two of us to use fresh in summer, and to can for winter soups and enchiladas.
Seeds are easy to come by, especially if your local market carries fresh tomatillos in the produce department (or start with some ordered from a seed catalog and then save your own seeds after that). With a fresh tomatillo, tear off the husk, cut the green fruit in half, squoosh the inside seed-carrying flesh onto a piece of paper, and set it aside to dry (incidentally, the same way I save tomato seeds - that soaking and fermenting in water is completely unnecessary). The seeds are much smaller than tomato seeds - more like eggplant's. When the paper is dry, the seeds can then be picked off and planted right away, or the paper folded up and tucked into an envelope to wait until Spring planting time.
To pick tomatillos, just lift up the sprawling branches and feel for heavy fruits that completely fill out the husk. For the best flavor, harvest when the husk and fruit inside are both still green. If you leave them until the husk dries out and the fruit inside turns yellow, they're still edible but too sweet. Harvested when the fruit inside just fills the husk, unwashed and unhusked fruits will keep a month or two just piled in a basket on a cool, pantry shelf (not refrigerated or in plastic).
To use fresh, pull off the husks and discard, then wash the round fruits inside (they'll feel a bit sticky). For salsa, dice or puree, along with roasted chile peppers, garlic, onion, and cilantro. They're also one of the easiest items to can (tomatillos on the left, above, jalapeno jelly on the right) for later use. Just barely cover dehusked and washed whole tomatillos with water and bring to a boil. Simmer 20 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. While they can be canned whole, I use a potato masher to smush them into a lumpy sauce. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, adding 1 teaspoon lemon juice to each pint. Leaving 1/4 inch headspace, seal, and process 30 minutes in a boiling water bath.
My favorite way to use canned tomatillos is to make a big batch of chili verde: pork cubes browned with chopped onion and garlic, add cumin and oregano, water or stock, chopped roasted and peeled chiles to taste, and a jar of tomatillos. Simmer until the pork is tender, and serve in bowls with tortillas or corn muffins on the side. It's even better the next day - try it smothering a scrambled egg and potato breakfast burrito, topped off with a bit of cheese. ¡Muy sabroso!