Tomatillos: modest in size but sharp in taste

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2007

Last week I talked about tomatoes. This week, I wanted to mention a small, shy cousin of the tomato. Smaller than a tomato, the tomatillo is modestly attired in a parchment-like husk. As the fruit ripens, the husk splits open, revealing the smooth green fruit underneath.

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While tomatillos may be modest about showing themselves, their flavor is anything but retiring. They have a sharper, more acidic flavor than tomatoes that lends itself particularly well to salsas and sauces. They are normally considered best when still in the green stage. As they ripen, the fruit will take on a yellowish hue.

Here is Mark Bittman's "default" recipe for green salsa:

Tomatillo salsa

Time: 10 minutes plus one hour's resting

2 cups husked, rinsed and chopped tomatillos

2 medium poblano or other mild green fresh chilies, optional, preferably roasted and skinned

1 teaspoon minced garlic, or to taste

¼ cup chopped white onion

salt and pepper to taste

Cayenne or minced jalapeno to taste, optional

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves

1) In a bowl, combine tomatillos, poblanos if you are using them, garlic, onion, salt, pepper and cayenne or chili. Let stand at room temperature for up to an hour, or refrigerate for up to half a day (bring back to room temperature before serving).

2) Taste and adjust seasoning, then stir in the lime juice and half the cilantrop taste and adjust seasoning again, then garnish with remaining cilantro and serve.

Yield is about 2 cups.

While some people refer to tomatillos as "green tomatoes," they are quite different. Given a choice between the two for making a green salsa or sauce, the tomatillo is preferred for its superior flavor. Indeed, discerning cooks consider tomatillos the key ingredient in fresh and cooked green sauces. One reason is that they have a gelatinous texture that lends body to any sauce.

When choosing tomatillos at the market, the key to quality is the freshness and greenness of the husk. Some experts say the husks should even be a little sticky. Greener, less ripe tomatillos are considered more flavorful. If it has begun to turn yellow, it will have lost some of its flavor. Tomatillos are very good keepers, and will last for up to several weeks in the refrigerator. While they can be frozen, this tends to diminish their flavor.

Tomatillos are very low in calories and are loaded with potassium. They are also a decent source of vitamin A.

While tomatillos can be cooked into simple sauces, they are considered best made into raw salsa. According to Mark Bittman, author of the excellent cookbook "How to Cook Everything": "This salsa can be as personal as a vinaigrette: It can be hot or quite mild, deriving boldness from garlic, onion, cilantro and maybe a little lime juice. Or it can be fiery with chilies."

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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