My garden isn't complete without a couple tomatillo plants. Every season, I plant them in pots on my patio, next to all my tomatoes, and dream about homemade salsa. Tell me I'm not the only one who dreams of salsa in her spare time...
Well, it's worth dreaming about because few things are more delicious than salsa made from garden produce -- including salsa verde made from homegrown tomatillos.
Tomatillos are a great addition to your garden because they not only do well in a variety of salsas, but they're also easy to grow and can be very productive. Here are a few things I've learned about this plant, both from research and experience:
Tomatillos are indigenous to Mexico (in Mexico, they're referred to as tomates verdes), and they are used in stews, moles, and salsas. When grown to maturity, they turn purple and have a very sweet flavor, but they're most commonly harvested when they're green and tart. When cooked, they develop a sort of lemony flavor. They add a really nice, zesty flavor to a dish.
Tomatillos grow on a bushy, spreading plant -- similar to a tomato. According to my copy of Sunset Western Garden, they can grow as a high as 4 feet and just as wide. This hasn't been my experience, but I guess it's possible! You can either let them sprawl or train them to climb a trellis/tomato cage. Each tomatillo grows within a papery husk (they remind me of Chinese paper lanterns) until it fills the husk and splits it. When they are harvested, the husk is removed and the skin of the fruit is sticky to the touch. It's a kind of a weird plant, actually, but I think that is even more reason to plant it!
Tips for Growing
Like tomatoes, tomatillos are a frost-tender annual, so only grow them when all danger of frost has passed. They'll keep producing until the first frost gets them in the fall. You can grow them from seed if your last frost date is early enough -- plant seeds directly into soil 4-6 weeks after last frost; they should germinate in about 5 days.
If your growing season is too short to plant very successfully from seed, you can either start them indoors 6-8 weeks before you intend to plant them or you can do what I do and buy starts at your local nursery. Tomatillo starts can be a little tricky to find -- my favorite nursery is one of the few places near my home that carries them. Then again, my mom found her tomatillo starts at Walmart this year, so maybe they're getting a little more common.
Tomatillos grow best in full sunlight and moist, fertile soil (I have yet to find a plant that doesn't like moist, fertile soil, but I'll mention it anyway). I grow mine in terracotta pots on my patio, one tomatillo start to each 14" pot, planted in potting soil. This method has worked well for me every year I've grown them. You can also plant them in the ground in your garden, like you would with tomatoes. Water them regularly until they begin to fruit; you can cut back on the water then, but be careful not to let them become stressed.
Harvest & Storage
Harvest your tomatillos when the husk changes from green to tan, when the fruit is deep green and about the size of a walnut. The key is to harvest while they're green, before they turn yellow or purple.
For the best flavor, keep tomatillos in their husks until you're ready to use them. They'll keep in their husks in the refigerator for a couple weeks if stored in a paper bag. You can store them even longer if you remove the husks and refrigerate them -- up to three months, one site says. You can also preserve them through canning (be sure to use a recipe formulated specifically for canning) and/or freezing. I froze a jar of my salsa verde last fall and just used some in a recipe for baked chicken taquitos (so good!) a couple weeks ago.
Before using them, be sure to wash all the sticky stuff off the surface of the tomatillo. From there, you can prepare them according to any recipe you want to.
Speaking of recipes, here's the recipe I used with my tomatillo crop last fall. It works well on its own with tortilla chips or in any recipe that calls for salsa verde. Not only is it delicious, but it's also really easy to make. The ingredients are simple and whole process only takes about a half-hour from start to finish.
Salsa Verde -- from a ripped out page of some past issue of Martha Stewart Living
Makes 4 cups
12 tomatillos (about 2 1/4 pounds), husks removed, rinsed well
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 ounces fresh cilantro (about 1/4 of a bunch), stems included
1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed and discarded (unless you want to keep some for extra heat)
1 small white onion, finely chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot of water to boil; add salt. Cook tomatillos until pale, about 5 minutes. Drain; cut each tomatillo into 4 wedges. Purée tomatillos, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño, and onion in a food processor.
Transfer tomatillo mixture to a medium stockpot. Bring to a simmer over low heat; cook until thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Go find some tomatillos to grow -- it isn't too late to plant a few starts -- and enjoy the unique and delicious flavor of one of my garden favorites. Before long, you'll be dreaming of salsa right along with me.