Although their name translates to little tomato, tomatillos aren’t tomatoes at all. Part of the Physalis family, they’re actually related to ground cherries and Chinese lanterns. Native to Mexico and the highlands of Central America, tomatillos are surprisingly easy to grow in North America. A little too easy. They can aggressively self-seed, leaving you with more volunteers than you might want. Sonia Day, author of Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City (Firefly Books, 2010), suggests planting them in wide containers. This controls the spread and gives you the flexibility to ensure their one requirement—full sun. If you have partial shade in your yard, put the container on wheels and move it about to catch the sun. Should frost surprise you, wheel your tomatillo plant indoors.
How to grow tomatillos
Tomatillos are best started from seeds about six weeks before the last frost. Don’t worry about being asked to choose from dozens of heirloom varieties or hybrids. Day says there’s only one variety. Although they grow to about three feet, there’s no need to stake them or provide anything more specialized than potting soil. As a bonus, their distinctive balloon-like husk offers protection from earwigs, slugs or other common garden pests. The biggest threat to this robust plant is frost, so don’t plant them too early or leave them out too late in the season.
Harvesting your crop
Day says tomatillos are ready to harvest when they “feel fat”. The husks will have turned from green, pliable and leaf-like to beige, crisp and papery. Once picked, tomatillos keep for weeks (and weeks) if stored in a cool place like your basement or an unheated north-facing room. Day puts hers in plastic gardening trays and stores them in the basement. She says last year’s harvest, picked in September, lasted until March.
What do you do with your bounty?
Normally pigeon-holed as the key ingredient in classic Mexican salsa verde, tomatillos are surprisingly versatile. Ready for something more adventurous?
- Roast them: Place peeled and rinsed tomatillos on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Roast them in a 450°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until they’re soft and beginning to brown. Swap roasted tomatillos for simmered ones in Salsa verde, purée them into a Mexican-inspired soup or add them to pasta sauce for extra flavour.
- Chop them: Add fresh, chopped tomatillos to classic Mexican dishes like guacamole and tomato salsa.
- Top them: Pour salsa verde over warmed brie, use as a condiment on black bean burritos or garnish corn chowder with a dollop (along with a bit of sour cream).
- Preserve them: Tomatillos make a tangy, flavourful chutney.
- Pair them: Tomatillos pair well with ingredients found in Mexican dishes, so think chicken, chilies, corn, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.