Elsewhere in these pages, you'll make the acquaintance of carnitas, which literally means “little meats.” Tomatillo translates to “little tomato,” but in this case, the diminutive is misleading. Unlike the green tomatoes that Southern cooks like to batter and fry, tomatillos aren't on their way to becoming full-fledged 'maters. While they're related to the popular nightshade, they're closer kin to the lesser-known cape gooseberry, and they top out at about 2 inches wide.
Tomatillos are best known in the United States for their contribution to the green salsas that sometimes arrive with free corn chips at Mexican restaurants. But there are at least seven more things to know about the New World fruit.
1. European explorers fell hard for tomatoes, but tomatillos were the reigning plump fruit of the pre-Columbian era. “This explains why a mouthful of tomatillo salsa transports you straight to Mexico,” Mexican cooking expert Rick Bayless writes. “It is the gustatory essence of the country — a gleaming contour of fresh green spiciness, herbal perfume and zest.” Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Joe Brunetti describes the tomatillo's flavor as combining “the heartiness of a tomato with the citrus zing of a lime.”
2. Tomatillos grow wild in modern-day Mexico, where Aztecs first domesticated the fruit. It's been cultivated farther north for centuries. According to ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, 800-year-old tomatillo seeds have been discovered at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in southwestern Colorado.
3. In addition to its starring role in salsas, tomatillo shows up in traditional stews and jams. For a more contemporary presentation, Sunset Magazine suggests broiling a halved tomatillo and mashing it into guacamole. Tomatillos also can be eaten raw.
4. When shopping for tomatillos, it helps to focus on the husk. The husk should be light brown and intact, and it should fit the fruit snugly. A dried-out, shriveled husk is a good sign of a tomatillo past its prime. If you remove a tomatillo's husk before storing it in the refrigerator, it will last for about a month, or twice as long as a refrigerated tomatillo with its husk still on.
5. Corn doesn't have the monopoly on husks: Tomatillos, sometimes called husk tomatoes, also sport those snazzy, self-protecting, sheaths. The botanical name for the papery jacket is calyx.
6. One tomatillo plant needs another tomatillo plant to pollinate, so a solo tomatillo is unlikely to bear fruit. But in the vicinity of other tomatillos, tomatillos are apt to flourish. Milpero tomatillo is the common name for tomatillos found growing in cornfields.
7. Fresh tomatillos are generally preferable to canned tomatillos, but the latter has its fans, including home cooks who are put off by the smell of tomatillo husks, or who have trouble finding tomatillos at their supermarkets. If cooking with canned tomatillos, one 11-ounce can is the equivalent of 1 pound of fresh tomatillos, according to The New York Times.