When Cinco de Mayo comes around, the craving for dishes I can make with tomatillos hits.
Although the name and appearance of tomatillos suggest they are a type of tomato, (tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish) these crisp plum-size fruits encased in a papery husk are actually members of a group of plants related to the gooseberry family. They look like small green tomatoes, but actually are quite different. They have a slightly astringent taste like a sweet lemon and a crunchy and firm texture like an un-ripe pear.
Tomatillos can be eaten raw, and when cooked they are still somewhat firm but less acidic. They are a staple of Mexican cooking, lending a tart, zesty flavor to sauces and salsas, but they can also add punch to salads, soups, pork dishes and even hot dog relish.
Tomatillos have been grown in Mexico since Aztec times, and Mexican cooks still use them in a variety of dishes. I first fell in love with them when I tasted salsa verde, the green sauce that topped my grilled fish, in a wonderful restaurant in Albuquerque many years ago.
They are available in supermarkets throughout the year. Choose small, firm, bright-green fruits with intact green to brownish-green husks. You can keep tomatillos at room temperature for a few days, or up to a week in the refrigerator, stored in a paper bag. Leave the husks on until just before preparation. If you don’t use them all, after cleaning, pop the tomatillos, either whole or sliced, into a freezer bag and store in the freezer.
To prep tomatillos, peel the husk and rinse off the sticky residue it leaves behind. You don’t need to remove the seeds. Remove the core with a paring knife. You can either simmer or roast them. To roast, place them on a rimmed baking sheet and roast four inches under a hot broiler for about 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until they are charred. Save the juices in the baking sheet for use in your recipe. Simmer for about 5 minutes or until soft. Drain and crush or puree as directed in your recipe.
An easy and delicious fresh salsa can be made by placing 1 pound of cleaned and quartered tomatillos, 1/4 cup of chopped red onion, 1 jalapeño, 1 cup fresh cilantro and 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Season to taste with salt. Serve with chips or over grilled fish or pork.
Watermelon and Tomatillo Salad with Feta Cheese
Adapted from Pati’s Mexican Table, by Pati Jinich, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($30).
The crisp acidity of Luis Cañas Rioja Blanco 2013 ($18.99) pairs deliciously with this salad, its fresh ripe fruit flavors echoing the tang of the tomatillos.
Jinich writes, “The vinaigrette can be made up to 3 days ahead, covered, and refrigerated (mix well before using); the salad can be assembled without the cheese and mint garnish up to 12 hours in advance, covered, and refrigerated.”
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon seeded (if desired) and finely chopped jalapeño chile, or to taste
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1½ teaspoons distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups seeded and cubed ripe watermelon
About 12 ounces tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed, quartered, and thinly sliced crosswise (3 cups)
About 4 ounces feta cheese or queso fresco, crumbled or cut into small dice (3/4 cup), or to taste
1. In a small bowl, combine the mint, jalapeño, lime juice, vinegar and salt. Slowly add the oils in a thin, steady stream, mixing with a whisk or a fork until emulsiﬁed. Let sit for at least 5 minutes before using, so the mint and jalapeño ﬂavors can marry and infuse the vinaigrette.
2. Place the watermelon and tomatillos in a large salad bowl. Toss gently with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Sprinkle the cheese on top, garnish with mint and serve.
Yield: 6 servings