It's vibrant green and looks like a small, underripe tomato hidden under a delicate, paperlike husk. Peel back that wrapping to reveal firm, slightly sticky flesh with a scent faintly reminiscent of freshly picked herbs. Take one bite and the sweet-tart flavor rings with plum, apple and citrus notes.
The tomatillo, a close but very independent cousin of the tomato and cape gooseberry, is known by several names, including husk tomato, jam berry and Mexican green tomato. Although the tomatillo is widely available year-round, its main season is May through October.
Allowed to mature, tomatillos may range in color from yellow to red, even purple. But they're best picked just before ripening, when the flesh is still firm and the flavors are bright with a gentle but assertive acidity. Look for firm fruit with tight, unwrinkled husks.
With husks on, tomatillos keep for about two weeks stored in a paper bag and refrigerated, but husk them and store refrigerated in a plastic bag and they keep up to four weeks. If you find yourself with an abundance, try freezing them (spread them, sliced or whole, on a sheet pan in the freezer until solid, then place them in an airtight freezer bag).
In Spanish, tomatillo means "little tomato," and records show that tomatillos were cultivated by the Aztecs as far back as 800 B.C. Tomatillos liven many Latin American recipes with their vibrant color, often silky texture and mildly tart flavor. They're often used in salsas, especially those that lighten rich chicken and pork dishes.
Tomatillos lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods, such as roasting, sauteing and stewing. Cooking softens the acidity and brings out the sweetness in the fruit. And like tomatoes, tomatillos can be enjoyed raw. Eat the fruit by itself, or use it to punch up a salad or cold dish.
For a simple meal, try grilling tomatillos - direct heat over a hot fire brings out the sweet notes of the fruit - by cutting them into wedges and lightly oiling and seasoning them. Quickly grill the tomatillos so they're crisp-tender - a couple of minutes per side - then toss them with some quick-grilled scallions, serrano chile and marinated, grilled shrimp. Divide the mixture among freshly warmed tortillas, add a side dish - and supper is served.
Or try a variation on classic chile verde by using them in a sauce for a fluffy omelet made with panela cheese (a fresh Mexican cheese that softens to rich creaminess when heated). Saute diced pancetta and tomatillos with minced onion and garlic. The pancetta cooks until caramelized and crisp; the tomatillo is added just so it warms through and blends with the flavors in the pan.
Freshen up the classic pairing of tomatillo and pork by adding citrus and fresh basil, mint and oregano. Stud a boneless pork roast with slivered garlic. Brown it in a heavy-bottomed casserole. In the same pan, saute onion, garlic, serrano chile and coarsely chopped tomatillos, then place the roast back in the pan. Add some broth, orange zest and fresh oregano and roast until the meat is falling-apart tender.
Noelle Carter and Donna Deane write for the Los Angeles Times.
Garlic Shrimp With Grilled Tomatillo Sauce
Serves 2 to 4
1/2 pound cleaned, peeled, large, tail-on shrimp
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing and tomatillo wedges
1 small clove garlic, pressed through a garlic press
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound tomatillos, each cut into 6 wedges (8 if the tomatillos are large)
4 green onions
1 small serrano chile
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
Heat a grill over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with 1 tablespoon olive oil, the garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of black pepper. Allow to marinate while the tomatillos, onions and chile are grilled.
In another medium bowl, toss the tomatillo wedges with just enough olive oil to coat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Grill the wedges until charred and crisp-tender, about 2 1/2 minutes on each side. Place them in a large bowl, and set aside in a warm place.
Lightly brush the onions and the serrano chile with a little olive oil. Grill until tender and charred on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside until cool enough to handle.
Slice the onions crosswise into 2-inch pieces and add to the tomatillos. Halve the chile and remove the seeds, then chop and add to the tomatillos. Toss and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Grill shrimp just until cooked through (they will be opaque and firm), 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side. Remove shrimp from the grill and toss them in the bowl with the tomatillos along with the cumin and oregano. Serve with grilled tortillas.
Per serving (based on 4 servings): 107 calories, 10 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 84 milligrams cholesterol, 246 milligrams sodium
Analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.