Much of what grows in our vegetable gardens originated near the equator -- tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, for example -- but we have adapted them to our climate and now regard their flavors as our own.
Tomatillos are a notable exception. They are a staple of various Mexican and Latin American cuisines, but they have not developed a general appreciation in the United States. As the marketers might say, they lack crossover appeal.
I'm puzzled by this, because tomatillos have a distinctive citrusy flavor, ranging from tart to sweet depending on ripeness, which combines well with chicken and pork. It also complements the earthy bitterness of cilantro and the abrasiveness of hot peppers.
Tomatillos are notoriously easy to grow. Plant them once in your garden and you'll get volunteers for years after, though not necessarily where you might want them to grow. They also are not susceptible to the same pests and diseases that afflict tomatoes.
Even so, most people overlook them. When grocers stock fresh tomatillos, they tend to be tucked away in a remote corner of the produce section, next to the jicama and plantains. I've decided that grocers regard such international offerings as a money-losing necessity in an age when most Americans prefer familiar foods but also like knowing that if they ever want to explore the culinary frontier, it's just one aisle over.
Most people who cook with tomatillos grow their own or buy them canned when the supermarkets don't have them fresh.
Fresh tomatillos make an interesting salsa, whose flavor and proportion of ingredients will depend entirely on the ripeness of the tomatillos. Tomatillo salsa really needs to be a project from scratch each time, as you add ingredients based on the developing flavor of the mixture. In general, however, onion, cilantro, peppers and salt will be your foundation. Use lime to balance fruit that are too sweet.
Tomatillos also turn up on the Mexican restaurant menus in chili verde, a pork-based dish commonly served with Mexican rice and warm tortillas. We made a pot of chili verde last week, and I was reminded why we grow them.
Before cooking, remove the paper husks from the tomatillos. The outside of the fruit may be sticky and should be washed thoroughly. Water also will loosen husks that have adhered to the fruit.
In the recipe below, the tomatillos liquefy quickly and the chili verde must simmer until the tomatillos cook down and the pork is tender. I used anchos for the mild peppers. Adjust the heat of the dish by the quantity of jalapenos you add.
- 2 to 3 pounds pork roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 4 gloves garlic, minced
- 1 onion, chopped
- 18 to 24 tomatillos, chopped to yield 4 to 5 cups
- 2 cups mild peppers, chopped
- 1 to 3 jalapenos, seeded and minced
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
In the bottom of a stew pot, saute the onion and garlic in a couple of tablespoons of oil. Add the pork and brown it. If necessary, pour off any excess oil.
Add the tomatillos, peppers, broth and all herbs but the cilantro. Reduce heat and simmer, approximately two hours, stirring occasionally.
Before serving, remove bay leaf and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.