For some vegetable gardeners, choosing a favorite plant is like choosing a favorite child. How could anyone decide? Each plant has its own wonderfully unique qualities, whether it’s an early harvest, abundant fruits, or particular resilience. For me, however, there is a clear favorite, and my garden is full of them: tomatillos. There are green ones the size of golf balls, smaller purple ones, and even the tomatillo’s tiny yellow cousin, the ground cherry.
Though I am most definitely a fan of salsa verde, it’s not the tomatillo’s culinary assets that give it the favored status in my garden. It’s the virtues of the plant itself. A tomatillo plant requires relatively little fussing, has huge yields, and is less susceptible to pests than tomatoes. A healthy plant can yield 10 to 15 pounds of fruit. Being indeterminate, it will continue to produce fruit well into the chilly fall weather. The plant has a graceful branched shape and lovely yellow flowers that make it pretty enough to warrant a spot in the garden even if it didn’t produce food.
Tomatillos are survivors. They have been traced back to 800 B.C. in Meso-America. One of the plant’s most unique features is the lantern-like covering that protects each fruit. It comes with its own little biodegradable packaging. Before the fruit forms, a papery covering emerges ready to receive the growing fruit. The papery husk protects ripe fruits from damage when they fall. If the fallen fruits are not harvested, the husk slowly deteriorates, leaving a delicately veined skeleton with a mini package of seeds inside. When autumn winds come, the seed packet is blown far and wide, assuring more tomatillos for next year. No wonder the plant has survived for thousands of years.
Tomatillos also have a mechanism to protect them from dehydration. They secrete a sticky substance helping the fruits to stay moist in climates where summer rains are infrequent.
Tomatillos were cultivated by the Aztecs and brought back to Europe. Their name originates from the Nahuatl word “tomatl,” meaning a fruit which is juicy and full of seeds. That it certainly is. Historians have noted that tomatillos were used medicinally by Native Americans. Currently, tomatillos, also known as miltomates, often grow wild in the milpa fields of Mexico and Guatemala among corn and beans.
Tomatillos are accommodating.Though a native of warmer climates, they are grown as far north as Zone 4 in Canada. They are tolerant of many different soil conditions, and prefer a sunny location with plenty of room to spread. Tomatillos can be started indoors and set out at the same time as tomato and pepper plants. They can also be direct-seeded when all danger of frost has passed. Once you have planted them in your garden, you are likely to see volunteer plants in subsequent years, due to their clever self-seeding mechanism. Tomatillos are self-infertile, so you will need at least two plants if you’d like to see fruits. There are no pests that are particular to the tomatillo, but their leaves can be damaged by cucumber beetles, aphids, and similar bugs early in the season. The plants can grow to 6 feet, and can be staked or left to sprawl, though plants are easiest to harvest when staked.
Tomatillos are members of the Physalis genus. Physalis ixocarpa is the larger, commercially grown species and Physalis philadelphica is the smaller species. ‘Cisneros’ and ‘Verde Puebla’ are two of the larger cultivars.
Purple tomatillos are of the smaller strain, usually about 1 inch in diameter. They are not only beautiful in the garden, but also sweeter than the green varieties. The purple hue may only appear in some of the fruits of one plant, and will sometimes develop after a fruit is picked. Purple tomatillos are delicious eaten raw, right from the vine. Other small cultivars are ‘Di Milpa’ and ‘Pineapple.’
Harvest & Storage
The smaller cultivars of tomatillos are ready for harvest when the husk turns tan and the fruit starts to split the husk. Some of the larger cultivars have puffy husks which can be peeled open to examine the fruit for color. It’s best to harvest the green tomatillos before they turn yellow and the flavor changes.
Tomatillos can be stored like onions, with their husks intact in a dry, cool place. They can also be kept in the refrigerator for up to a month in a paper bag. Alternatively, they can be kept in the freezer for several months. To prepare tomatillos for freezing, remove the husks, wash off the sticky coating and then half, quarter or leave whole, depending on the size.
In the Kitchen
Tomatillos are as versatile in the kitchen as they are easy to cultivate in the field. They can be used raw or cooked. They have a tangy citrusy flavor, which is sweetened slightly with broiling or blanching. Raw, they are a part of salsa cruda, and cooked they are used in salsa verde. Because they contain a high amount of pectin, a tomatillo salsa will often thicken considerably with a few days in the refrigerator. Tomatillos can add a distinct flavor to a soup or be mixed with avocado in a guacamole.
My favorite way to use an end-of-season bumper crop is inspired by my father’s pickled green tomatoes. Every fall my father would make a batch of lactobacillus-fermented green tomatoes to preserve the last of the season’s crop. Into a crock went the green tomatoes, garlic, dill and salt brine. Within a few days the kitchen smelled like a kosher deli, and the delicious pickles were ready to be enjoyed. My tomatillos looked like little green tomatoes, and I had plenty of them, so I tried making a batch of pickled green tomatillos. To my surprise, they tasted just like my father’s green tomato pickles, maybe even better.
Whether you pickle them, turn them into salsa, or put them in soup, tomatillos are as delicious as they are easy to grow. Consider making a little space for some tomatillos in your vegetable garden this year. But remember, plant at least two.
Aviva Furman is the founder of Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle, and a Certified Nutritionist. She currently lives in Boston, where she loves growing hot-weather crops at her home and community garden. Her blog, "100 Pound Challenge" asks "Is it possible for a city apartment dweller to grow 100 pounds of produce in a summer?" Check it out at http://hundredpound.blogspot.com.