Washington Years ago, before American tastes awoke to incoming ethnic cuisines and the attendant ingredients they required, "authentic" salsa recipes often called for green tomatoes.
But what we used to refer to as green tomatoes are, we now know, actually tomatillos walnut-size, apple-crisp fruits encased in papery husks. They look like small tomatoes, but actually they are quite different.
The taste of a tomatillo is pearlike, with a slightly astringent undertone. The texture is crunchy and firm, pleasant when eaten raw and still somewhat firm when cooked. In a salsa recipe, the play of fiery peppers, mild tomatoes and puckery lime juice so perfectly complements the sweet tomatillo that a sauce that includes them all will soar.
Tomatillos have been showing up with increasing frequency at mainstream supermarkets; in many areas, the fruits are regularly stocked year-round. But even though they're more widely available, they are well worth growing at home for the superior flavor that comes with freshly harvested specimens.
In the garden, tomatillo plants are quite unlike the sprawling, leafy tomato vine: The main feature is the fruit, which appears rapidly to fill in the sparse stems.
Tomatillos produce heavily. Husks hang like tiny Chinese lanterns all over the stems and branches of the plant. The green lanterns fill in gradually.
The harvest coincides with tomatoes and peppers, from August through early fall. Fruits are ready for picking when the husks change from green to buff or pale gold; fruits inside can be green, eggshell or lemon. There also is a purple variety, housed in green husks. All are similar in taste.
Two plants would be plenty for the home gardener, for they are prolific.
Tomatillos are grown in the same conditions as all hot-weather annuals: full sun, compost-rich soil, plenty of water. They can go in as seedlings, but are fast-maturing enough to be sown directly in the soil.
Though they do not vine like cucumbers, the plants are sufficiently tall and flimsy to warrant support. They can be tied to a trellis or surrounded with a tomato cage.
Tomatillo plants are more common than they once were, though they are by no means ubiquitous. Larger garden centers carry them, as do Hispanic markets that sell specialty plants for the home garden.
If local sources run dry, try Johnny's Selected Seeds, (207) 437-4301 or www.johnnyseeds.com.