Trying Tomatillos

Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are small, spherical, green or green-purple fruits. They are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which also includes pepperstomatoes, goji berrieseggplant, potatoes, tobacco, and petunias.

Evidence of tomatillos has been dated as far back as ca. 800 B.C. and found in Tehuacán cave levels (south of the ciudad de Puebla) dating to A.D. 825-1225. The Aztec word tomatl means something “round and plump.”The Aztec word for tomato is xitomatl and the tomatillo was called miltomatl.

Europeans that came to the New World and documented the local foods often confused food names.  The Spanish frequently shortened both xitomatl and miltomatl to tomate, which has caused the confusion over the years.  Around A.D. 1550, Don Juan de Guzmán, the Governor of Coyoacán in the Valley of Mexico (known as Anahuac “Lands of Water” & today’s Mexico City) has a list showing the receipt of 700 chiles and 700 tomates a week.  Presumably these tribute “tomatoes” were the highland tomatillo.

The Spanish explorers likely brought tomatillos back with them to Spain. We know they brought back tomates, but historians are not sure if tomatoes or tomatillos or both were offloaded from the explorers’ ships.

The Europeans and especially the Italians, eventually accepted (although somewhat hesitatingly) the tomato, which thrived in Mediterranean conditions.  Tomatillos were never accepted by the Europeans and essentially never left Central America until recently.  However, the tomatillo has migrated north with Mexican immigrants into the United States and remains a staple in Mexican cuisine.

First introduced into India in the 1950s, tomatillos remain very popular there where they are commonly made into chutney. In the US, they are mainly grown in Texas.

Tomatillos were primarily available canned – not fresh – up until about a decade ago. Fortunately, these days, tomatillos are available fresh in many markets.

Tomatillos can:

  1. Fight free radicals. Tomatillos are an excellent source of vitamin CVitamin C is the primary water-soluble antioxidant in your body, disarming free radicals and preventing damage in the liquid environment both inside and outside cells. The manganese in tomatillos is an essential cofactor of a key antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within your mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells).
  2. Reduce your risk of heart disease. Your heart and bloodstream take oxygen from your lungs and circulate it throughout your body. But oxygen free radicals can damage the fats that are located in the membranes of cells lining your blood vessels, or fats that are being carried around in your blood, in a process called lipid peroxidation. This damage can be prevented or repaired with sufficient antioxidants. However, chronic or excessive lipid peroxidation in your bloodstream leads to a deployment of your body’s immune and inflammatory systems, and can lead to a gradual blocking of blood vessels (atherosclerosis) or other problems. Vitamin C in tomatillos provides critical antioxidant support in your cardiovascular system. The vitamin K in tomatillos helps prevent calcification of your arteries. Niacin in tomatillos helps lower cholesterol levels. Potassium in tomatillos regulates muscle contraction, including heart rythym, and lowers blood pressure by counteracting the detrimental effects of sodium and regulating fluid balance. The soluble fiber in tomatillos lowers your cholesterol levels by binding with bile, which contains cholesterol, and carrying it out of your body.
  3. Build strong bodies. The vitamin C in tomatillos helps produce collagen, which supports strong bones, muscles, blood vessels, gums, mucous membranes, corneas, joints, and other supporting cells and tissues, and helps you absorb iron and calcium. The vitamin K in tomatillos allows your blood to clot normally, helps protect your bones from fracture, and helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss. Potassium in tomatillos regulates muscle contraction, stores carbohydrates for muscles to use as fuel, promotes regular muscle growth, and maintains the density and strength of bones by decreasing urinary calcium loss.
  4. Prevent cancer. Risk for many cancer types starts out with chronic oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. The vitamin C in tomatillos helps prevent cancer by neutralizing volatile oxygen free radical molecules and preventing damage to your DNA that can lead to cancer and by destabilizing a tumor’s ability to grow under oxygen-starved conditions. The vitamin K in tomatillos provides possible protection against liver and prostate cancer.
  5. Support your immune system.  The vitamin C in tomatillos supports your immune system, processes toxins for elimination, and acts as an antihistamine.
  6. Stabilize your blood sugar. Niacin in tomatillos stabilizes your blood sugar. The fiber in tomatillos prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal.

Nutrients in 1 Cup of Raw Tomatillos

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin C

11.7 mg

20%

vitamin K

10.1 mcg

13%

niacin

1.9 mg

9%

potassium

268 mg

8%

fiber

1.9 g

8%

manganese

0.2 mg

8%

magnesium

20 mg

5%

phosphorus

39 mg

4%

copper

0.1 mg

4%

iron

0.6 mg

3%

vitamin B6

0.1 mg

3%

thiamine

0.044 mg

3%

vitamin A

114 IU

2%

folate

7 mcg

2%

protein

1 g

2%

vitamin E

0.4 mg

2%

pantothenic acid

0.2 mg

2%

riboflavin

0.035 mg

2%

carbohydrates

5.8 g

1.9%

choline

7.6 mg

1.8%

Calories

32

1.6%

fat

1 g

1.5%

calcium

7 mg

1%

zinc

0.2 mg

1%

selenium

0.5 mcg

0.7%

sodium

1 mg

0.04%

Cholesterol

0 mg

0%

Lutein + Zeaxanthin

467 µg

Beta carotene

63 µg

Alpha carotene

10 µg

You can purchase tomatillos year-round in some specialty stores and supermarket chains. Look for tomatillos that fit snugly into their husks and that are firm. Additionally, make sure that each tomatillo husk is dry to the touch. Inside each tomatillo husk, the fruit should be green, which indicates that the tomatillo is not totally ripe. This is the state that you want the tomatillo to have when you use it. If the fruit inside the husk is yellow in color, the fruit is totally ripened, and recipes that call for tomatillos do not typically use totally ripened fruit.

Store tomatillos in their husks in a paper bag in your refrigerator for up to one month.

When you are ready to use a tomatillo, make sure that you remove its outer husk and wash the tomatillo thoroughly before using it. Because tomatillos have a unique, tomato and lemon combination taste, they are a welcome addition to many meals.

Tomatillos are most closely associated with Mexican and Central American cuisine (including Guatemalan), but the fruit has also made its way to India, where it shows up in chutneys, curries and dals.

Tomatillos can by very inconsistent in flavor, with some being sour and others tasting mild and sweet. If the tomatillos are to tart for your taste, try adding a little fruit juice to balance the taste.

There are several ways to prepare tomatillos:

  • Raw – Raw or uncooked tomatillos are often in Mexican sauces. They add a fresh citrus-like flavor.
  • Blanched – Blanching mellows the flavor. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the whole tomatillos (husks removed and rinsed) and boil for approximately 5 minutes or until soft. Drain and crush or puree as directed in your recipe.
  • Fire Roasted – Roast under the broiler, with a propane torch, or over an open flame such as a grill. Make sure the heat is quite hot before roasting. If the heat is not hot enough, the tomatillos will turn mushy before being charred. The charred or slightly blackened skins will enrich your sauces with a smoky flavor.
  • Dry Roasted – This will produce an earthy, nutty flavor. Place the tomatillos in a heavy fry pan (preferably a cast iron pan). Turn heat to low and roast for approximately 20 to 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Mexican cooks commonly roast tomatillos on a comal, a flat griddle used on the stovetop.

Tomatillos are classically paired with green chiles in Mexican cuisine, serving as a sweet-tart counterbalance to the heat of the peppers. The most famous of this combo is Mexican salsa verde, which usually contains tomatillos, green chiles, and onion (sometimes garlic and cilantro, too) and is commonly served as a sauce for enchiladas, tacos, and other Mexican dishes. Tomatillos’ sweet-tart flavor can be an interesting addition to classic dishes like tomatillo, tomato, and avocado gazpacho. Getting even more creative, tomatillos can be used in sweet dishes, too. Frequently paired with cinnamon, tomatillos are made into jams, tarts, and pies.

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