San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tomatillos Great for Home Garden

Here’s another curious plant I’m sure you will enjoy growing in the tropical home garden that’s famous in Mexican cuisine. I’m referring to tomatillo, or husk tomato (Physalis philadelphica), a relative of the tomato and a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Tomatillos provide that tart flavor in a host of Mexican green sauces, or salsas verdes.

The Mexican indigenous tribes started domesticating tomatoes around 800 B.C. The Aztec word for tomato was tomatl, which means “round and plump,” while the tomatillo was called miltomatl.

Each little tomato comes packaged in a thin, paper-like wrapper that looks like a little yellow lantern when ripe. The hardy plants are easy to grow in the home garden in average soils and with little care.

We start our tomatillo seeds in flats with prepared potting soil to give them extra protection from bugs during their early stages of development. One month later, we transplant them to cups for about two weeks to help them recover from the shock of transplanting, and to let them develop new roots. Next, they are transplanted to the garden about 50 centimeters apart. Light applications of aged compost boost growth and production.

Tomatillos need a trellis to support their abundant foliage, and to prevent the fruits from resting on the ground. Once the plants are well established, they produce fruits for many months and have little or no bug problems. In my opinion, they are a wilder strain of tomato with genetic resistance to pests and disease.

Once the harvest begins, you can pick tomatillos green for sauces, or include the ripe yellow tomatillos in salads. I admit they are a little tarter than the domestic tomato, but they do give salads a tasty zing.

Unfortunately, Ticos don’t have much interest in growing tomatillos, so they are difficult to find in markets and seed stores. Last year, I was able to acquire some ripe fruits at México Lindo, a Mexican restaurant in the Southern Zone town of San Isidro de El General. Co-owner Patricia Mora was more than glad to share some tomatillos, as well as her recipes.

Here’s Mora’s recipe for salsa verde:

Take a dozen green tomatillos and blend them with a quarter of an onion, a handful of cilantro and several green chiles to your liking. It’s preferable to serve the sauce fresh for optimal taste and nutrition, but it is often cooked to help preserve the sauce for several days.

You might also want to try México Lindo’s enchiladas with salsa verde: Fold corn tortillas over a selection of diced and sautéed vegetables, such as carrots, onions, broccoli and green beans (chicken can be added). Next, heat the enchiladas in salsa verde with grated cheese sprinkled on top. This dish is usually served with natilla (sour cream) and frijoles molidos (blended beans).

If you have a difficult time finding tomatillo seeds in your area, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and I’ll send you a gift pack of seeds.


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