Archive for Wednesday, August 14, 1996

TART TOMATILLOS BREAK SALSA RUT

August 14, 1996

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I took a vow over the winter to begin planting a vegetable in my garden every year that I had never grown before. I never want it said that I got stuck in the green beans and potato rut -- even if I end up growing something my family can't identify and won't eat.

With gardening catalogs spread on the table before me that January day, the possibilities seemed endless. Somehow, from that cornucopia of opportunity, I settled on tomatillos as this year's adventure in gardening.

Given my family's fixation on Mexican food, this seemed a natural choice. One particular gardening catalog reported that tomatillos -- which many people know as husk tomatoes -- are the indispensable ingredient in authentic Mexican cuisine.

The prospect of making real chili verde or any number of Mexican dishes using fresh ingredients straight from the garden was too tempting to pass up. Tomatillos have a distinctive, tart flavor that can't be achieved using unripened, green tomatoes.

If my tone is turning self-congratulatory, it's because growing tomatillos may be one of the better, if somewhat impulsive, gardening decisions I've made lately.

From seeds I started indoors in February, I have five bushy, fruit-laden plants growing out of the tops and sides of their tomato cages.

As a bonus, tomatillos don't seem to hold any fascination for the blister beetles that are so fond of my tomatoes and beans this year. Although I've picked a few stink bugs off the plants, the damage has been minimal.

Tomatillos ripen when the fruits achieve a diameter of one to two inches and begin to turn yellow. These are firm fruit and keep longer in the crisper drawer than their tomato relatives, so a gardener with just one or two plants should have no trouble stockpiling tomatillos for a batch of salsa verde or to make the sauce for a weekend feast.

If I have one frustration with my tomatillo experience, it's that recipes for using them are difficult to find. Even in many well-indexed Mexican cookbooks, tomatillos earn no mention. I find this odd since canned tomatillos are available in the Mexican section of most supermarkets and specialty food stores.

I have concluded that the spotty supply of recipes for tomatillos is probably the result of the regionalization of Mexican cuisine, with tomatillos finding greater favor in some areas of the country than others. Then too, the cynical side of me wonders whether some cookbook authors don't sell their readers short and assume that we won't make the effort to find more esoteric ingredients.

To get you started, here are a few tomatillo recipes, borrowed from ``The Well-Filled Tortilla'' by Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman:

Salsa verde

12 ounces tomatillos

2 cups cilantro leaves

2 yellow wax or jalapeno chili peppers, stemmed

Peel the papery husks off the tomatillos. Rinse the tomatillos, place them in a saucepan, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft to the touch, about five minutes. Remove the tomatillos and reserve the water.

In a food processor, blender or food mill, puree the tomatillos along with half a cup of the cooking liquid, the cilantro and chilies. Stir in the salt. Cover and chill a little before serving. Makes 2 cups.

Fried tomatillos with onions and cream

2 medium onions, quartered, then sliced

1 teaspoon salt

too, the cynical side of me wonders whether some cookbook authors don't sell their readers short and assume that we won't make the effort to find more esoteric ingredients.

To get you started, here are a few tomatillo recipes, borrowed from ``The Well-Filled Tortilla'' by Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman:

Salsa verde

12 ounces tomatillos

2 cups cilantro leaves

2 yellow wax or jalapeno chili peppers, stemmed

Peel the papery husks off the tomatillos. Rinse the tomatillos, place them in a saucepspoon about half a cup of the tomatillo mixture in the middle of a tortilla. Sprinkle with cilantro, according to taste, fold and serve. Serves four to six.

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