As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are temporarily closed. We are not announcing a reopening date at this time and will provide updates on our website and social media.

The tomatillo (tohm-ah-TEE-oh)

Editor’s note: The Smithsonian’s kickoff celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month takes place on September 15, 2012 here at the museum. Since it will focus on Central American traditions, including music, dance, and food demonstrations, Horticulturist Joe Brunetti introduces the tomatillo, a favorite in Mexican and Guatemalan cooking. Our chef’s Chicken and Tomatillo Tortilla Soup will be on the menu at our Stars & Stripes Cafe sometime during Hispanic Heritage Month.

“What is a tomatillo?” “What sort of recipes use tomatillos?” “What do they taste like?” These are just a few of the questions I get asked when I show visitors the tomatillos growing in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

Right now in the Victory Garden grows a tomatillo that demands attention. Instead of the familiar green, this variety’s fruit and husks are tinted midnight purple. Come by sometime and have a look!
Right now in the Victory Garden grows a tomatillo that demands attention. Instead of the familiar green, this variety’s fruit and husks are tinted midnight purple.

Simply put, tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are small fruits ensconced in a papery husk. These beauties belong to the nightshade family—yes, the same nightshade family that contains the usual scene-stealers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco and even petunias. The tomatillo is like the distant cousin that doesn’t make it to the family get-togethers, and it’s high time you two got to know each other.

P9050325Tomatillos are a summer annual originating from Mesoamerica and therefore grow best under similar conditions as a tomato plant. In the spring, when the danger of frost is no longer at hand, plant tomatillos in full sun and in rich organic soil. Provide a supporting structure like a tomato cage as it grows. A ripe tomatillo looks and feels much like an un-ripened tomato—typically firm, with a green and/or yellow hue. They vary in size from one inch in diameter to plum-sized. You want to harvest your tomatillos when the husk has not browned and the fruit is still firm to the touch.

Speaking of the husk (which most people associate with corn), it is botanically known as the calyx. Think of it as a paper-like shield protecting your produce from ravenous varmints. Thank you, calyx! When this shell is peeled off of the tomatillo, a sticky resin is left on the skin, but it washes off easily.

The taste of a tomatillo combines the heartiness of a tomato with the citrus zing of a lime. It is sure to get your taste buds dancing.

The taste of a tomatillo combines the heartiness of a tomato with the citrus zing of a lime. It is sure to get your taste buds dancing. The texture is like an under-ripe, spongy tomato. Trust me, it’s cool.

Tomatillos have been cultivated for millennia and were a staple food in ancient Mayan and Aztec communities. In fact, the Aztecs are credited with domesticating the tomatillo. To this day, this peculiar fruit is a constant component of the Mexican and Guatemalan diet. Traditionally tomatillos are combined with chili peppers to make sauces, with the coolness of the tomatillo balancing out the hot flavor of the pepper.

Tomatillos have been cultivated for millennia and were a staple food in ancient Mayan and Aztec communities

Have you eaten salsa verde (green sauce)? Well then, you’ve probably eaten tomatillos since they are typically the main ingredient in salsa verde. Other uses for the tomatillo include chopping them and adding them to salads and salsas, or pureeing them into gazpacho and guacamole. Less commonly, but still worth mentioning, tomatillos are used to flavor rice and tenderize red meats.

Joe Brunetti is a Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist at the National Museum of American History. He has also blogged about the spicy and colorful fish pepper.

Editor’s note: Enjoy this recipe for Chicken and Tomatillo Tortilla Soup, provided Chef William Bednar. If you’d like to try a tomatillo soup with ground bison instead of chicken, check out this recipe courtesy of The Bare Midriff.

Chicken and Tomatillo Tortilla Soup
About ten servings

2.5 cup onion small dice
1 cup carrot small dice
1 cup celery small dice
0.25 cup garlic minced
0.25 cup olive oil
2.5 quart chicken stock
1 quart tomatillo hulled and quartered
2 cup roasted peppers (red/green/yellow deseeded and cut into strips
0.25 cup roated Jalapeno deseeded and minced
0.5 pound corn tortillas rough chopped
0.5 bunch cilantro chopped
2 each limes juice of
1 Tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoon cumin
2 each bay leaf
2 teaspoon thyme
ToTaste Kosher Salt and Black Pepper
2 pound Grilled or Roasted Chicken cut into 1 inch strips
4 each corn tortillas cut into thin strips and deep fried for garnish
10 teaspoon sour cream for garnish
10 sprigs cilantro for garnish

Directions:
In heavy bottom stock pot add oil. Over medium heat saute the mirepoix (carrots, celery and onions) and tomatillos until onions are transparent. Add garlic and cook until aromatic.

Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat and add the tortillas, chili powder, cumin, thyme, bay leaf, and jalapeno. Simmer until the tortillas break down, then add the peppers and chicken. Season with salt and pepper, lime, and cilantro.

For garnish, place soup in bowls and top with sour cream, tortilla strips, and cilantro sprig.