When it comes to summer cooking, I often find myself falling into the same monotonous rut. Fish. Salad. Burger. Repeat. When it’s over 100 degrees outside, everyday tasks like making dinner turn tedious, and up until recently, very few things get me inspired enough to set up shop up in my tiny, poorly ventilated apartment kitchen.
Until I started paying attention to the tomatillo.
The plump little green fruits are kind of a mystery. Remove their veiny, papery husks, and you’ll discover what looks like a green tomato. Slice into it, and a thick plastic-like layer of skin protects a spongy, seed-dappled interior. One bite and you’re in for an electric shock. Flavor-wise, they’re nothing like tomatoes, leaning closer to the sweet personality of a slightly under ripe granny smith apple, or green grape. A tangy, tart acidity smacks your palate around, then eases into an underlying savory juice and fleshy texture that more closely resembles pumpkin or squash.
Tomatillos originate in Mexico, but they are now grown everywhere in the Western hemisphere. In Austin, one can find them at the grocery store year-round, and many local farms grow them for distribution to local restaurants and farmer’s markets; the growing season runs from approximately May through November, peaking in August.
While they might look tomato-like, they’re actually most closely related to the gooseberry, which is also part of the nightshade family. When the outer husks are light green-brown and fresh looking, and the fruit fills the shell, it’s ripe and ready to eat. You typically don’t eat the spiderweb husks, but they can make for an artistic garnish. If you want to extend the shelf life of a batch, remove the husks before storing in the refrigerator.
There’s not much literature out there on what to do with the fruit outside of their traditional use in salsas and sauces, but the little lantern-esque bulbs have such a perky personality before they’re blended and drizzled over enchiladas, I figured they must warrant more creative attention than simply salsa verde.
Like any good quest for unusual recipes, I figured it would be best to start with a solid understanding of how they are used traditionally, which led me to Alma Alcocer-Thomas, Chef and Co-Owner of local Mexican restaurant El Alma.
Alcocer-Thomas says she grew up seeing tomatillos used as a preservative tool for guacamole (the inherent acidity keeps the fickle avocado from browning too quickly). For the restaurant’s Verde Cruda salsa, she took inspiration from the childhood dish, but reduced the amount of avocado and employed tomatillos to balance out the creaminess. She says, in most Mexican cooking, tomatillos used in salsas are roasted or cooked, but she opted for raw ones in this case to bring out a zingy element. The spicy sauce is tongue-tickling with tortilla chips, but also pairs well with chicken or shrimp-based enchiladas and tacos.
Local author and tequila expert Lucinda Hutson features the same avocado-tomatillo ingredient combination in her recipe for the Guacawacky Avocado Margarita, featured in her new book Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking and other Adventures.
Huston says the idea was inspired by a local Mexican restaurant Curra’s, which is famous for its house Avocado Margarita. For her, the smoothie-like, thick consistency is too filling, and the taste too sweet, making the drink more like a dessert than a refreshing tipple. To modify their concept, she muddles raw tomatillos to brighten up the avocado base, much like Alcocer-Thomas’ salsa approach. All the ingredients are then shaken with tequila and served on ice, resulting in a relatively medium-bodied cocktail with the throat-drying heat of serrano chili pepper, creamy avocado texture and fruity citrus kiss from the tomatillo. I’d happily sip on the cool drink with grilled fish or black bean soup.
Raw tomatillos are also employed by Executive Chef duo Thai Changthong and Ek Timrerk at Spin Modern Thai in North Austin, where they take the South of the Border ingredient and transport it into an Asian context.
The Larb Sake dish at the relatively new (and already highly acclaimed) Thai restaurant features salmon sashimi as the star of the show, bringing in supporting chunks of raw tomatillo to balance out the fattiness from the fish. “If you use tomato, you don’t get the same texture, just acid,” Changthong explained. “If you use tomatillos, you get three things — color, texture and acid.”
The combination of buttery salmon and piquant tomatillo, paired with grapes, lemongrass, and citrus juice make for a ceviche-like appetizer that’s light, clean and complex. Timrerk thinks seafood is a natural pairing for the tomatillo because of the fruit’s acidity. Outside of salmon, he suggests pairing with other fatty, oily fish. “You want those acids to balance out the fat. Probably not white fish, but scallops would be really good,” he said.
The acid-fat balance is also the driving force behind how the Texas Ranch-inspired restaurant Contigo uses the fruit. Chef Andrew Wiseheart pickles tomatillos to pair with the house charcuterie plates because “the meat is rich and bold a lot of the time, so having something acidic [and] salty helps balance that out.”
Thinly sliced savory slices of meat certainly beg for a palate cleanser between bites and, when pickled, the tomatillos transform into a bold match. The Bar Manager at Contigo also uses them in the house Bloody Mary, adding a visual interest to its snacking function. Through my research, I also found several recipes online for Bloody Mary cocktails that completely eliminate the tomato in favor of tomatillos, which is next on my exploration list.
At home, I’ve also had satisfying results with simply throwing raw chunks into summer salads and roasting them as a condiment for Southwestern burgers, and I intend on working on several variations of ceviche. We still have several months of grueling summer heat ahead, so you can bet my fruit bowl will be stocked with the curious little fruits for the rest of the season.
Salsa Verde with Avocado (Verde Cruda)
- 2 pounds tomatillos
- 4 Serrano peppers, chopped
- ½ bunch cilantro, washed and stems removed
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- ¾ pounds avocado (2 large avocados)
- ½ tablespoons salt
- ½ cup canola oil
Wash and remove the husks of the tomatillos. Chop and place in a blender or food processor with the rest of the ingredients. With the motor running, add oil in a steady stream and blend until smooth. Season with salt to taste.
Makes 3 quarts of sauce.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas at El Alma
- 1 pound tomatillos, cut into quarters
- 3 sprigs fresh oregano
- 3 jalapenos
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon cumin seed
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
Combine everything except for the tomatillos in a pot and bring to a boil. Let cool and taste. Add water to taste, depending how acidic you like your pickles. Pour cold brine over cut tomatillos and let sit in refrigerator for 1 week.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Andrew Wiseheart at Contigo Austin
- 3 ounces Atlantic salmon fillet (sushi grade, cubed)
- ½ tomatillo, quartered
- 3 grape tomatoes, halved
- 3 red seedless grapes, halved
- 1 shallot, julienned
- ¼ stalk lemongrass, cross-cut very thin (use only tender inner layers)
- 6 fresh mint leaves, julienned
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Thai chili, thinly sliced
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons shaved palm sugar
- 2 tablespoons and ½ teaspoon fresh lime juice
- 1½ tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 whole Thai chili
For sauce: Blend ingredients in a blender for approximately 30 seconds.
Combine all the ingredients in bowl and toss with sauce. Add dusting of toasted rice powder (below).
For toasted rice powder: Toast 1 tablespoon raw rice in a saucepan over medium heat. Cool. Grind to a powder.
Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef Ek Timrerk at Spin Modern Thai
“Guacawacky” Avocado Margarita
- 1 ripe (slightly soft) medium tomatillo, husked and cut into eighths
- 2 sprigs cilantro
- ¼ to ½ avocado, peeled (not too ripe)
- ¾ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
- ¾ ounce homemade jalapeño syrup (below)*
- 2 ounces chilled reposado or blanco tequila
- Chili salt for the rim
- Garnish: unpeeled thick tomatillo slice and/or avocado slice sprinkled with lime and dusted with spicy chili salt, cilantro optional.
Vigorously muddle tomatillo in pint glass. Add cilantro and avocado and continue to muddle. Add lime juice, jalapeño syrup and tequila. Shake with ice until chilled. Taste, add more lime or syrup as needed. Pour unstrained (or strained, if you prefer no chunks) into a chilled salt-rimmed glass. Sprinkle with chili salt. Garnish and serve.
Note: Instead of jalapeño syrup, you can muddle half a jalapeño (seeded if you want less heat) with the tomatillo and add one or more ounces of sweet and sour mix (below) instead.
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 jalapeños or red fresno chilis, halved, seeded and minced
- 2 serranos, halved seeded and minced (optional)
- 1 dried chile de arbol, freshly ground in a spice grinder (optional)
In a heavy, one-quart saucepan, bring sugar and water to a slow boil, stirring gently to dissolve sugar. Add peppers and simmer for three minutes. Remove pan from heat and allow cooling. Pour, unstrained, into a bottle. Can be refrigerated for two weeks.
Makes approximately 2 cups.
Agria Dulce (Sweet and Sour Mix)
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- Grated zest of 1 large lime, 1 navel orange or tangelo, and 1 lemon
- 1¼ cups fresh lime juice
- 1 cup fresh lemon juice
- Agave syrup to taste (optional)
In a heavy one-quart saucepan, bring sugar and water to a slow boil. Reduce heat to simmer, stirring gently for three minutes to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and cool for five minutes before adding citrus zest. When cool, add fresh citrus juices. Add a small amount of agave syrup if it’s too tart. Cover and refrigerate for a few days, or freeze for future use. Use ½-¾ ounce per margarita or other tequila drink. Makes approximately 3½ cups.
Recipe excerpted with permission from ¡Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures by Lucinda Hutson, published by the University of Texas Press.
- 38 ounces tomato juice
- 1¼ jalapeños, seeded and chopped
- 1¼ ounces of dill (weight with stems) remove stems when adding
- ¾ ounces cilantro (without stems)
- 2 ounces Worcestershire
- 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
- 2 ounces olive brine
- 1 tablespoon fresh grated horseradish
- 1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
- 10 cracks of black pepper
Blend all ingredients except tomato juice. Mix well in tomato juice then incorporate smoked tomato water of 2 tomatoes. Add Texas Kicker hot sauce to taste. Makes approximately 44 ounces of mix.
For each Bloody Mary, add 1½ ounce clear spirit of choice. Contigo is currently playing with Aquavit, but vodka or tequila also work well. Pour in a glass filled with cracked ice. Top with mix. Lightly stir until chilled. Garnish with pickled tomatillos, snap peas and lemon wedge.
Recipe courtesy of Bar Manager Steven Robbins at Contigo Austin