This week's look at what's bountiful, new, or even mysterious in the produce aisle.
Talk about a personality complex. The tomatillo looks like a tomato. It tastes like a tomato that's been sprinkled with lemon juice. Its name means "little tomato" in Spanish. But even though its monikers include the husk tomato, Mexican green tomato and the Chinese lantern plant (so called for the husk's resemblance to a Chinese hanging lantern), the tomatillo is not a tomato. So what the heck is this odd-looking little thing that lurks in the supermarket produce section year round?
Like the tomato, the tomatillo is a fruit. The tomatillo, however, belongs to the physalis family and is thus related to the gooseberry and the ground cherry. Native to Mexico, the tomatillo is a staple in Mexican cooking and figures largely in two of that cuisine's traditional mole sauces: mole negro, the blackest of moles, as well as a mole verde, or green sauce. Tomatillos are also grown in California and Texas.
Chef and cookbook author Rick Bayless calls tomatillos "the gustatory essence of the country--a gleaming contour of fresh green spiciness, herbal perfume and zest." Bite into a raw tomatillo and you'll discover a tart, faintly lemony flavor (though the taste can vary from tart to bitter, so a pinch of sugar is sometimes in order when adding it to sauces).
Buying and Storing: Select a tomatillo that has a dry, tight-fitting husk with pale green flesh underneath that is firm and unwrinkled. Tomatillos are generally green when ripe and are smaller, glossier and firmer than a tomato, ranging in size from 1/2 inch to 2 inches. While some varieties ripen to yellow or purple, the Toma Verde variety that is commonly found in U.S. markets remains green.
Tomatillos can be stored at room temperature for two days or placed in a paper bag and refrigerated for two to three weeks. (And like the tomato, tomatillos freeze well once they have been cooked in a sauce.)
Cleaning: When ready to use, peel the husk from the tomatillo, remove the stem and wash the tomatillo with cool water to remove the sticky, resinous material that it exudes from its stem. Do not attempt to peel the fruit. If you will be using the tomatillo raw, cut it in half and remove the white core.
Preparing: Tomatillos are the main ingredient in Mexican green salsas. Try dicing some and adding them to your favorite recipes for salsa, guacamole and gazpacho. Or add a handful to your favorite tossed salad.
Although tomatillos are often used raw, cooking brings out their faint apple flavor; simply cover whole tomatillos with water, bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes (being careful not to let them burst). Drain most but not all of the cooking liquid, add salt, mild green chilies, cilantro and onion and jalapenos or other hot chilies to taste, simmer for about 20 minutes longer and you have a green sauce that can accompany enchiladas, tacos, tortilla chips or nachos. Or drizzle it over grilled chicken, fish or beef. Stir in a bit of cream and simmer the sauce with some shrimp or scallops for a quick seafood stew. And any traditional Mexican cook knows that the leftover cooking water can be added to masa when making tamales to produce a light and fluffy dough.