Tomatillos tangy surprise in dishes

Think of tomatillos, with their flirty, papery husks and tart taste, as the sassy little cousins of beefsteak and Roma tomatoes.

They're not as abundant as those red tomatoes dominating farmers markets and produce bins. But tomatillos (toe-mah-TEE-ohs) offer cooks a lot more than the base for a bowl of salsa, brightening a variety of dishes with a refreshing lemony tang.

Jack Staub, a Bucks County, Pa., vegetable gardener and author, uses them in an Indian-inspired mix with okra. Monica Bhide, a cooking teacher and author based in Washington, D.C., uses them to make a chutney, which she often spoons over savory minicheesecakes. Dona Tomas chef Thomas Schnetz batters and fries them much like fried green tomatoes, serving them with a tomatillo and guajillo-chili sauce at his Oakland, Calif., restaurant. And at Norman's, Norman Van Aken's Orlando, Fla., restaurant, grilled pork is paired with a tomatillo-based mojo verde sauce.

That most people know tomatillos only for their role in Mexican salsas is understandable. The fruit, which also is related to the cape gooseberry, has been grown in Mexico and Guatemala. It has been used by Aztec and Mayan cooks for thousands of years. You'll now find them in India, Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Cooks should choose the smooth, green fruits (when they start turning yellow they'll lose some of their characteristic tang), free of bruises, blemishes and dried, shriveled husks, Bhide said. "If the husks are unusually tight and the fruit firm, they are going to be very, very tart," she said.

Fresh tomatillos must have their husks removed first. Then, rinse lightly in water.

--Use raw: Coarsely chop and use in salsas, guacamole or salads, or slice thinly for sandwiches.

--Use cooked: Cook in boiling water until tomatillos begin to go translucent, about 5 minutes. Or roast tomatillos on a griddle until they soften and toast, darkly in some spots. Use in salsas or recipes as directed.

Do tomatillos and tomatoes deliver the same nutritional power? Here's a quick look at a few nutrients based on USDA numbers (both are for 1/2 cup, chopped):

--Calories: 21 in tomatillos vs. 16 in tomatoes.

--Calcium: 5 mg vs. 9 mg.

--Iron: 0.41 mg vs. 0.25 mg.

--Potassium: 177 mg vs. 214 mg.

--Sodium: 1 mg vs. 5 mg.

--Vitamin C: 7.7 mg vs. 11.45 mg.

--Niacin: 1.22 mg vs. 0.53 mg.

--Vitamin A: 75 IU vs. 750 IU.

--Lycopene: 0 mcg vs. 2,316 mcg.

--Lutein & zeaxanthin: 308 mcg vs. 111 mcg.

Makes: 6 servings

Tomatillos may have been born and raised in Latin America, but they are global travelers these days.

Pennsylvania author-gardener Jack Staub, for example, grows the fruit. He knows tomatillos' tart character can kick up the flavor profile of a variety of dishes.

Sometimes called a green tomato -- or tomate verde in Spanish -- tomatillos are tarter than "green" unripened red tomatoes. They complement the ginger and turmeric in Staub's tomatillo and okra dish.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 pound tomatillos, husked, washed, quartered

3/4 pound okra, sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 large plum tomatoes, chopped

1 jalapeno, seeded, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Directions

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat; add onion and turmeric. Cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add tomatillos and okra; cook over medium-high heat, stirring until browned and vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, jalapeno, ginger and water; season with salt. Simmer over low heat until okra is tender and most of liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes. Add cilantro.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 92 calories, 49 percent of calories from fat, 5g fat, 1g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 11g carbohydrates, 2g protein, 201mg sodium, 4g fiber.