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Archive for Wednesday, September 23, 1998

FRUITFUL TOMATILLO RARELY DISAPPOINTS

September 23, 1998

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Interspersed with my tomato vines for the past few gardening seasons have been several tomatillo plants. This year, two of my tomatillo plants were intentional, while the rest were volunteers that sprouted from the seeds of fruit that dropped off plants last year or the year before.

Tomatillos will continue to ripen in area gardens until the first frost. I wait until the tomatillo's outer husk turns yellow and papery before pulling the fruit from the vine. At that point, which often doesn't come until August and September, the tomatillos are a soft green and full-flavored.

This was not a particularly bountiful year for the tomatillos in my garden but it was good enough that I've been plotting how I'll use the supply of ripe little fruits that I am still amassing.

Herein lies one of the advantages that tomatillos have over their red, fleshier cousins: Tomatillos keep longer than tomatoes, the better to stockpile them. The patient gardener need set out only a few tomatillo plants in order to have an adequate supply of fruit for several batches of chili verde or green salsa.

As a practical matter, however, tomatillos are like zucchini in the spell they cast over even the most resolutely conservative gardener. For some reason most gardeners who grow tomatillos year after year can't help but overplant them and no sane person could or would want to eat everything that the vines produce. Happily, tomatillos can be canned or frozen, either whole or chopped.

I was contemplating possible uses for this year's tomatillo harvest and recalled a note that Denise Kester sent me a few years ago, when I last discussed tomatillo solutions in print. I rooted around in my cache of reader mail and found it, dated October 1996, with some recipes attached.

Following is one, taken from a cookbook called ``Mexican-American Plain Cooking,'' for a chicken casserole that calls for the hard-to-find Mexican spice epazote. In her note, Denise said the dish could be made without it. Epazote is easy to grow, however, and you need plant it just once because it is a vigorous reseeder. I let it bolt a couple of years ago and this summer had to pull the pungent-scented volunteers up from the edges of our gravel driveway.

Denise suggested substituting half a bag of stale tortilla chips instead of frying up the tortilla strips. This would cut the fat content of the recipe. Also, she noted that for a milder dish Anaheims may be substituted for the serranos.

Chicken Chilaquiles

or chopped.

I was contemplating possible uses for this year's tomatillo harvest and recalled a note that Denise Kester sent me a few years ago, when I last discussed tomatillo solutions in print. I rooted around in my cache of reader mail and found it, dated October 1996, with some recipes attached.

Following is one, taken from a cookbook called ``Mexican-American Plaino cover, until soft; grind in blender together with chilies, onion, epazote, cilantro and salt. Heat one tablespoon of lard or oil, add tomatillo puree and cook for several minutes. Cut tortillas into strips and fry until just browning. Drain and add to green sauce. Cook slowly, stirring constantly until the tortilla strips, or chilaquiles, are soft. Place in heated serving dish or casserole and cover with chicken, sour cream and shredded cheese. Repeat the layers. Place in oven for up to 25 minutes, until the cheese melts and the dish is heated through. Remove from the oven and serve covered with shredded lettuce. Makes four to six servings.

-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at mellinger@harvey.bakeru. edu. Her phone number is 594-4554.

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