By Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune Newspapers
Think of tomatillos, with their flirty, papery husks and tart taste, as the sassy little cousins of beefsteak and Roma tomatoes.
They're not as abundant as those red tomatoes dominating farmers markets and produce bins. But tomatillos (toe-mah-TEE-ohs) offer cooks a lot more than the base for a bowl of salsa, brightening a variety of dishes with a refreshing lemony tang.
Jack Staub, a Bucks County, Pa., vegetable gardener and author, uses them in an Indian-inspired mix with okra. Monica Bhide, a cooking teacher and author based in Washington, D.C., uses them to make a chutney — which she often spoons over savory minicheesecakes. Dona Tomas chef Thomas Schnetz batters and fries them much like fried green tomatoes, serving them with a tomatillo and guajillo-chili sauce at his Oakland, Calif., restaurant. And at Norman's, Norman Van Aken's Orlando, Fla., restaurant, grilled pork is paired with a tomatillo-based mojo verde sauce.
That most people know tomatillos only for their role in Mexican salsas is understandable. The fruit, which also is related to the cape gooseberry, has been grown in Mexico and Guatemala. It has been used by Aztec and Mayan cooks for thousands of years. You'll now find them in India, Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Cooks should choose the smooth, green fruits (when they start turning yellow they'll lose some of their characteristic tang), free of bruises, blemishes and dried, shriveled husks, Bhide said. "If the husks are unusually tight and the fruit firm, they are going to be very, very tart."
Staub began growing tomatillos 15 years ago after spotting them in a seed catalog. "They sounded intriguing, and of course I love green sauce and salsa. I loved the look of the papery husk." He now favors a purple variety for its color.
Because his garden delivers a bounty of tomatillos, he often pairs them "with onions and chilies, then some kind of spice. It can be a Mexican idea, with cilantro and cumin," Staub said, or with a little ginger, a little turmeric and okra, and "it kind of slants it in the Indian fashion."
Bhide, who launches the Indian edition of her book, "Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen" in May, has found tomatillos used in the northern part of India. "It's where I got my inspiration for making a chutney because they're so tart," she said.
"Sometimes I will chop tomatillos up and saute them with grated coconut and a little bit of spice, and it's just great," she said.
A basic Mexican-accented green salsa of tomatillos, white onion, chilies and cilantro may be used as a dip or seasoning for tacos, eggs, fish, etc. Simmer that sauce a bit, then incorporate in recipes for enchiladas and chilaquiles. A tomatillo's tartness makes it a natural with rich meats (pork is popular) or chicken, especially in stews and soups.
Rice with poblanos and tomatillos
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
-- Adapted from a recipe in "Dona Tomas," a cookbook by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky. Serve the rice with grilled foods and sauced entrees.
6 ounces tomatillos, husked, washed
1 poblano chili, toasted, peeled, stemmed, seeded
1/4 bunch cilantro, stems removed
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 small white onion, diced
1 1/2 cups medium or long grain rice
1 Put tomatillos, chili, cilantro and salt in a blender; puree until smooth. Add enough cold water to bring to 3 cups liquid; blend.
2 Heat a saucepan over high heat; add oil. Add onion; reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until translucent, 5 minutes. Add rice; cook, stirring until lightly toasted, 5 minutes. Add tomatillo mixture. Increase heat to high. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to low. Cover; simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, 20-25 minutes. Fluff with fork, season to taste.
Per serving: 274 calories, 26% of calories from fat, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 393 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.