On my first visit earlier this month, I drank homemade margaritas on a rooftop terrace with friends while watching the sun set, and spent days strolling narrow cobblestoned streets and feasting on tortilla soup and platters of enchiladas, sopes, quesadillas, marinated skirt steak and fish tacos.
The city’s lively markets sell everything from dried beans to rubber tires, but even the smallest grocer offers the essentials for a Mexican feast: avocados, fresh and dried chili peppers, white onions, plum tomatoes, pungent cilantro, tiny limes and shiny tomatillos, wrapped in veined papery husks.
With their meaty white flesh and bright citrus taste, these firm green tomatoes range in size from cherries to golf balls. Cooked briefly and blended, they become Mexico’s famous salsa verde, served as a dip with nachos, simmered into a mole and spooned over everything from tacos to grilled fish.
San Miguel architect and cooking school teacher Patricia Juana Merrill Marquez even bakes tomatillos in a tequila pie with lime, orange and currants, in her cookbook The Buen Provecho Book. At Christmas, she says, Mexicans boil the husks and use the water to leaven doughnuts, or buñuelos.
As we sipped mint tea in her pretty bed-and-breakfast tucked into the side of a hill, she brought out a stone mortar full of guacamole zapped with roasted tomatillos instead of lime juice and a pile of nacho chips. Both quickly disappeared.
If you don’t end up in Mexico for March break, grow your own tomatillos this summer or find them in farmer’s markets and enjoy their fresh, tart taste at home.
Buy & Store:
Look for fresh tomatillos year-round in Latin supermarkets. Kensington Market has several. Some supermarket chains carry them as well.
- Choose dry, firm green fruit, free of mold, with a tight-fitting husk.
- Store for a few days at room temperature or wrap loosely in plastic and refrigerate for a few weeks.
- For longer storage, freeze whole or sliced.
- Merrill says small tomatillos are milder and sweeter, good for salads, while the larger, thicker-skinned variety we get is more tart and ideal for a cooked salsa.
- Unlike their red tomato cousin, tomatillos don’t need to be peeled or seeded, and they’re used when firm.
- Before use, remove and discard husks and rinse off the sticky substance underneath.
- Boil: Bring a big pot of water to a boil and boil whole tomatillos, husked and rinsed, for 5 to 10 minutes until soft. Blend with chilies, garlic and onion for a smooth salsa verde.
- Roast: For a hint of smoke in your salsa, place whole tomatillos 4 inches (10 cm) from a hot broiler and roast until blackened and softened, about 4 minutes per side. Do not peel.
- Pan-roast: Roast in a heavy skillet on medium heat for 10 minutes or until blistered and softened, turning occasionally.
- Add zip by substituting tomatillos in any recipe calling for red tomatoes, fresh or cooked.
- Whip up a classic Mexican salsa verde, raw or cooked, varying the texture and spice level to taste.
- Spoon salsa over grilled fish, chicken or pork.
- Brighten a soup or pasta sauce with roasted, puréed tomatillos.
- Make an omelet with eggs, mild cheese, diced tomatillo and onion. Top with homemade tomatillo salsa.
- Fold a chopped tomatillo, green onion and cooked corn kernels into cooked quinoa and dress with a lime juice-cilantro vinaigrette.
- Dice into a green salad or gazpacho soup.
- Eat like an apple!
Roasted Tomatillo Guacamole
This lively appetizer is a favourite of Mexican cooking teacher Patricia Juana Merrill Marquez in San Miguel de Allende. Tomatillos give a surprisingly fresh, tart flavour without lime juice. If you find the mixture too tart, add a little sugar.
5 large tomatillos, husked, rinsed
1 to 2 serrano chiles
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
1 tsp (5 mL) fine sea salt, or to taste
1/4 cup (60 mL) finely chopped onion, preferably white
1 large ripe avocado, peeled, diced
1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped cilantro
Tortilla chips (for serving)
Preheat broiler to 500F (260C).
Place tomatillos, chilies and garlic on baking sheet. Broil 4 to 5 minutes, until blistered and softened. Turn; broil 4 minutes; remove before they get too black. Let cool. You can also roast on stove in heavy skillet on medium heat until softened, 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Do not peel.
Stem cooled chilies (scrape out seeds if you can’t take the heat). Peel garlic.
Place tomatillos, chilies, garlic and salt in blender or food processor. Pulse to a chunky sauce. You can also do this with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.
When ready to serve, transfer salsa to shallow bowl. Stir in onion, avocado and cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.
Makes 2 cups (500 mL).