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Tomatillos can grow in northern gardens, too

Tomatillos (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Tomatillos (toe-mah-TEE-ohs) are the lesser known, tangy cousin of the tomato. These small fruits (a little bigger than a cherry tomato) enclosed in loose, papery, brown or green husks are to the tomato what the lime is to the orange.

Though a warm-weather crop, they can grow in our northern gardens and are at their peak at the end of summer before frost hits. We have never grown them in our garden, but know other North Country gardeners who have.

Tomatillos have been a Central American staple for thousands of years. They were known to Mayan and Aztec cooks since 800 BC or earlier. It is possible that the Spanish conquistadores brought them back to Europe, though they didn’t become as popular in European cuisines as tomatoes in Italy.

The small green fruit are common in Mexican cuisine — and rarely found in other culinary traditions. They are a main ingredient in salsas, enchilada sauce, spicy pork stews and even tomatillo soup.

For a long time, they were little known outside of Mexico and perhaps Texas — where most of our tomatillos are grown. But their use is spreading northward, and they are becoming more common. Today they’ve become common in East Indian curries and chutneys. You’ll also find them in Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

A half-cup serving of tomatillos contains just 20 calories, a quarter of them from fats which include both omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. They also contain vitamin C and A. They’re an excellent source of potassium — one medium tomatillo contains 91 mg. That compares to 926 mg in a medium potato or 422 mg in a banana (both of which are way bigger than the tiny tomatillo!). Other minerals found in tomatillos include iron, copper, magnesium, manganese and phosphorous. Though they don’t contain lycopene (as do tomatoes), they do have other flavonoid antioxidants like zeaxanthin and lutein. Anolides are lesser-known phytochemicals in tomatillos that have been found to have anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties.

Tomatillos can be eaten raw, roasted, grilled, boiled or sauteed. Cooking mellows the flavor a bit, and a little sugar or honey can help to balance the tartness.

Whether used in salsa or stew, Mexican cuisine pairs tomatillos with hot peppers and cilantro. Not being a huge fan of either, a search for recipes that did not use these ingredients turned up cold. So I set out to experiment and discovered that this tangy fruit can make any dish a zesty delight. They add a tart, lemony touch to salads, soups and stews. Sauteed with onions and garlic, tomatillos make a good side dish to accompany fish or chicken. Raw tomatillos can be chopped and added to any salad — not just salsa. Their tang adds flavor to pasta, grain and potato salads.

Tomatillos are covered with a brown, papery husk that should be removed before using. The fruit has a slippery coating that needs to be washed off. Choose ones that are firm, not soft, and have an intact husk. Store in the refrigerator after purchasing.

Tomatillo, Cucumber and Melon Salad

Ingredients:

1 cup tomatillos, halved or quartered

1 to 2 cups diced melon (cantaloupe or honeydew)

1 cup diced cucumber

1/2 onion, peeled and diced

1/2 sweet red bell pepper (about 1 cup)

For those who like it hot — 1 jalapeno pepper, minced fine (or more, to your taste)

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon fresh-squeezed lime or lemon juice

2 Tablespoons fresh minced mint

2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley

1 cup fresh minced arugula

1 Tablespoon lime or lemon juice

Directions:

Quarter or chop tomatillos. Peel melon, and dice. Peel cucumber, and dice. Peel onion, and dice. Remove seeds from bell pepper, and dice. Remove seeds from the jalapeno pepper, and mince. Combine vegetables in salad bowl, sprinkle with salt, and stir. Stir in lime juice. Let sit at least 30 minutes to blend flavors.

Chop mint, parsley and arugula and stir in. Sprinkle with lemon juice, and stir. Taste to see if it needs more salt and/or acidity (lemon juice).

Option: To make into a main-dish salad, combine with cooked grain (like quinoa or rice) or with pasta for a pasta salad. Add a tablespoon of olive oil, a bit more lemon or lime juice, and salt.

Makes 4 1-cup servings.

Chicken Stew with Tomatillos and Beans

Ingredients:

1/3 cup dry black beans

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breast, trimmed of excess fat

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon marjoram

1 stalk celery

4 ounces mushrooms

1 green bell pepper

1 carrot

Handful fresh green or wax beans

6 tomatillos

2 cups chicken broth

1 bay leaf

4 or 5 dry prune plums or 1/4 to 1/3 cup raisins

1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced

1 stalk fresh oregano

4 or 5 fresh basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Cover beans with water. Bring to a boil, cook 2 minutes, and turn off heat. Let stand 2 hours or longer.

Use a sharp knife to cut the meat into one-inch cubes. Toss with paprika and marjoram to coat.

Add oil to a heavy bottom saucepan; spread to coat. Brown the chicken in the pan; be careful not to crowd. Remove to a plate, and set aside.

Lower heat, add onion and more oil if needed, and cook 7 to 10 minutes.

Prepare the remaining vegetables (celery through tomatillos), and add to the pot. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

Drain the beans.

Add broth, bay leaf, minced garlic, plums oregano, basil, salt and soaked, drained beans to the stew pot. Bring to a boil, lower to simmer, and cook 30 to 40 minutes, or until desired tenderness.

Add the reserved chicken to the pot, and cook about 10 minutes longer until meat is cooked through.

If there is not enough liquid, add a little more broth or water. If too much liquid is left at the end, drain into a small saucepan, add flour to make gravy, and stir in.

Serve or over pasta, rice or potatoes, with a salad of fresh garden greens.

Serves 4.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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