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The Star of Mexican Salsas--the Tomatillo

June 02, 1988|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

Question: What's a tomatillo and where are they sold?

Answer: The following information on tomatillos is excerpted from "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables--A Commonsense Guide" (Harper & Row: 1986, $25) by Elizabeth Schneider:

"This star of Mexican salsas is one of about a hundred Physalis species, among which the best-known edibles are the ground cherry and Cape gooseberry. Commonly called Chinese lantern plants, because of their unusual formation, this group has fruits that are enclosed in papery calyxes that cover them like Oriental lamp-shades. Dry as antique leaves, parchment-colored, the weblike enclosure is easily peeled off to reveal the fruit. The tomatillo (toe-mah-TEE-yo), which ranges from an inch in diameter to plum-sized, resembles a green cherry tomato (both are members of the Nightshade family) but is more lustrous and firm. Although it may be purplish and may ripen to yellow, it is commonly used green.

"SELECTION AND STORAGE: Look for tomatillos year round, with no predictable season. It is one of those foods that you must ask for to create a regular demand, as it is widely available and well distributed in many areas--in supermarkets, greengrocers, or Latin shops. Choose fruits that are firm and dry with clean, close-fitting husks that show no blackness or mold. They should be hard; they do not have give like tomatoes.

"Tomatillos can be stored in the refrigerator for an astonishing length of time; I have kept good ones for close to a month with no signs of deterioration. Place them in a paper-lined dish or basket and simply let them be.

"For longer storage, tomatillos freeze extremely well, once cooked. Husk, wash and stem them. Combine with water to barely cover; keep at under a simmer until softened, but not squishy. Cool in the liquid, then freeze in cooking liquid in one-cup containers for handy sauce-making (use both fruit and liquid for this; do not drain).

"USE: Although traditionally the tomatillo is not used raw, you might like to try it chopped in salad, in gazpacho or guacamole, or slivered or diced as a garnish for cold soups and a sandwich ingredient. You can make the tomatillo into a spectacular garnish by merely pulling back the husk, which will give the effect of a missile in motion, a comet's tail.

"Like red tomatoes, tomatillos have great sauce-ability. Chopped or pureed, they make a tart dressing; cooked and pureed, the flavor is fuller, more mellow, and takes to all kinds of spicing and herbing.

"The traditional uses for tomatillos are hard to beat: In salsa cruda the barely cooked fruits are combined with chili-peppers, onion, garlic, cilantro, and optional seasonings for an all-purpose sauce that seems to go with everything that can be dipped or dressed. The cooked sauce enlivens tacos, cheese dishes, potatoes, huevos rancheros, or chicken enchiladas. Blended with herbs, or pumpkin seeds, stock, or other sauce components, tomatillos are the basis for a wealth of green sauces in which chicken, turkey, fish, or vegetables are simmered.

"PREPARATION: Tomatillos must be husked before use. Peel off the crackly husk, then thoroughly wash the fruits to remove the sticky resinous material near the stems (also removed, obviously).

"To cook or precook the tomatillo, choose one of these methods, depending upon whether you wish a liquidy, saucy result (the first method) or a firmer, drier one.

"--Barely cover husked tomatillos with cold water; poach gently, without simmering, until tender, 2-15 minutes, depending on the tomatoes--so keep tabs.

"--Roast unhusked, rinsed tomatillos in a dish in a preheated 450-500 degree oven until tender, 10-15 minutes. Watch closely that they do not burst. Remove and let cool until you can handle easily. Pull back and twist off the husks. Rinse the tomatillos gently.

"NUTRITIONAL HIGHLIGHTS: Tomatillos are quite low in calories, with 100 per cup. They are a rich source of Vitamin A and a fairly good provider of Vitamin C and niacin."

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