Versatile Tomatillo Salsa

By Carolyn Niethammer

When I was interviewing chefs for my book The New Southwest Cookbook back in 2005, tomatillos were the vegetable du jour — every chef had them on the menu, usually “blackened” or roasted to heighten the flavor.  I gained new respect for how versatile they are.

I planted six tomatillo plants in August and hoped for a plentiful harvest; I even dreamed about making enough green salsa to can or freeze. Alas, my homegrown tomatillos were so tiny they weren’t worth the trouble and I ended up buying tomatillos grown by a farmer who had a better technique.

My homegrown tomatillos with a commercial one.

My homegrown tomatillos with a commercial one.

In Mexico the tomatillo is called tomate verde, which means “green tomato.” However, tomatillos are not just small, underripe tomatoes, but a distinct vegetable in their own right. Tomatillos are the size of an apricot and covered with a papery husk. They are meatier and less juicy inside than a tomato. Tomatillos are an essential part of Mexican cuisine and have been since the Aztecs domesticated them. Most tomatillos are harvested slightly underripe when then have a tart, slightly lemony flavor that adds zip to salsas.  As they fully ripen they turn more golden and become sweeter.

Tomatillos are the main ingredient in the classic salsa verde, which includes tomatillos, sliced green onions, green chiles of some variety, garlic, and cilantro. Salsa verde can be served raw or very lightly cooked. Of course, you can always put your own spin on salsa verde by using the herbs you have fresh in your garden.

To prepare tomatillos, remove the husk and rinse off the sticky substance on the skin. Rub them with a little oil and then put them under the broiler until they are soft and just slightly brown.

Roasted tomatillos

Roasted tomatillos

I love the flavor of poblano chiles in anything, so I roasted a couple of those while the tomatillos were cooling. When their skins were charred on all sides, I put them in a paper bag to sweat for about 10 minutes (OK, 5 minutes, I was impatient). This makes them easy to peel. Also take off the stem and the seeds.

Roasted poblanos

Roasted poblanos

Next it is time to get creative. Put your tomatillos, skin and all into the blender with some sliced green onions, some peeled garlic cloves, and the peeled chiles. If you want a little more heat, add a half or whole jalapeno, chopped. (And of course you remember to use gloves while chopping the jalapeno and don’t touch your eyes.) Add some chopped cilantro. I had some lovely fresh basil, so I added that as well. Blend well until you have a nice smooth consistency. The chef at Medizona, a top Scottsdale restaurant, added a little apple juice to mellow out the tartness.

Blend the ingredients.

Blend the ingredients.

So now you have this wonderful salsa. How to use it? Try it on tacos or tostadas (photo top of post) or as a sauce for chicken, pork chops, or even shrimp.

Tomatillo salsa on broiled chicken.

Salsa verde on broiled chicken.

Charboiled Tomatillo Sauce from Medizona

Feel free to vary the amounts in this recipe. As they say, “for reference only.”

1/4 pound tomatillos

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 poblano chiles

1/2 jalapeno (optional)

3 green onions, sliced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

5 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup apple juice

Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove husks from tomatillos, wash, and rub with oil. Put under boiler until soft and slightly browned. Let cool.

Broil or grill poblano chiles until all sides are charred. Sweat in paper bag until skins remove easily. Peel and seed.

Combine all ingredients in a blender and whirl until smooth.  If using on hot food, heat in a saucepan before serving.

And just for fun, here’s a garnish tip I learned from Chef Janos Wilder. Carefully loosen the husk from tomatillos, peel them back and you have a lovely flower. They are a great addition to a cheese plate or relish tray for a party.

tomatillo flowers

Carolyn Niethammer writes about Southwest cuisine and edible wild plants of the Southwest. She is happiest when working in her flower or vegetable gardens, out on the desert gathering wild foods, or devising new recipes for the plants she has gathered. Her five cookbooks range from a look at the way Native Americans cooked wild plants to a collection of recipes devised by the Southwest’s top restaurant and resort chefs for incorporating the area’s iconic ingredients in delicious dishes. This post originally appeared on Savor the Southwest.

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