Shortly after my move to Southern California from Pennsylvania, I encountered a first class salsa bar. Brightly colored canisters offered exotic hot peppers, fresh lemon slivers and three varieties of homemade salsa. The first salsa was filled with chunks of tomato and onion, the second gave an aroma of cilantro and the third was green!
“What makes that green salsa, green?” I queried a passing waiter.
“Tomatillos” came a snappy reply in a South-of-the-Boarder accent. He hurried by too fast for me to ask, “What’s a tomatillo?”
But I soon found out. After one taste of the tangy green salsa, I was hooked. Tomatillos were the next addition to my new garden.
Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are native to Mexico, but also grow uncultivated in parts of California. As a member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), the tomatillo plant is a relative of the tomato, eggplant and pepper. Not so edible relatives include the petunia, jimson weed, and tobacco. Tomatillos are also called jamberberries, and strawberry tomatoes. In Mexico, they are known by the name tomate verde.
As a traditional part of Mexican cooking, tomatillos are found in stews, moles (pronounced mo-lehs) and salsas. They are seldom used whole, and are often pureed. Its texture is firmer than a tomato and it tastes like a tangy lemon. On the outside, the two-inched sized vegetable is bright green. On the inside, it’s considerably lighter. Its seeds are fine and edible.
Growing tomatillos is like growing tomatoes, only easier. Both the tomato and the tomatillo are annuals and prefer similar climatic conditions. Tomatillos do best in full sun, but do well partly shady areas. They are also drought tolerant.
Tomatillo seeds can be found where vegetable seeds are sold, in gardening centers and seed catalogs. Start planting in the spring, about two weeks after the last frost. Place the seeds 3″ inches apart. And expect sprouting to begin in seven to twelve days. When the seedlings have five to six leaves, thin them to one plant every 18 inches. The plants are bushy and sprawl to a size of 3 to 5 feet in height. The warmer the climate, the bigger they get.
The tomatillos grow inside a papery husk. The husk helps to protect the fruit should a light frost occur. When the fruit has grown to nearly fill its husk, it’s ready to harvest. Make sure they’re picked before the fruit turns yellow, otherwise the fruit’s tangy flavor will be lost.
Start looking for ripe fruit just before tomato plants begin producing, or about 55-70 days after the plants sprouted. Tomatillos can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months. They keep best stored in their husks, inside a paper bag. Before use, remove the husk and wash the sticky residue from the tomatillos surface. Tomatillos can also be frozen and caned.
After living in Southern California for four years, I’ve learned that “green salsa” is really called “salsa verde.” And that “salsa verde” is a cinch to make. So now when I feel the urge for homemade “salsa verde,” I visit my backyard to collect fresh tomatillos.
My Favorite Salsa Verde Recipes: