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Thursday, September 12, 2013

You Say Tomato…I Say Tomatillo…

tomatillo jungleThe Pacific Northwest is green tomato heaven. Not so heavenly, however, for ripe tomatoes. Tomato propagation in the Valley is problematic because of the fall fog that blankets the garden at night and lingers sometimes until early afternoon. Late blight thrives in those conditions and all too often the Valley gardener notices blackened stems and leaves on his tomatoes, a telltale sign the “black” plague is on the march in his tomato patch. Applying a fungicide like a copper-based spray can somewhat allay a blighted patch but given the right conditions, not much can be done to salvage the season’s  anticipated quota of BLTs (last year even the neighbor's’ hoop house couldn’t ward off the black plague).

As a hedge against blight and the potential loss of tomato sauce and salsa, a few years back I thought I’d give tomatillos (the Mexican tomato) a try.BLT in the making Now I’m not suggesting a tomatillo is an adequate substitute for a luscious slab of this (there’s just no substitute for a slice of beefsteak and mayo or the delicious combination of smoked bacon cuddled up next to a thick round of vine ripened Early Girl : 

But as gardeners we need a back up in case of the heartbreak of  late blight. (FYI: late blight, Phytophthora infestans, affects both tomatoes and potatoes and was responsible for the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1740-41.) And as a substitute crop the tomatillo definitely has its advantages. Tomato-like only in shape, tomatillos belong to the same plant family: Solanaceae, which includes, of course, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. And then there’s the pesky vine that creeps up the hedges and trees in your landscape, common name “European bittersweet” (Solanum dulcamara) , an invasive plant and also a member of the nightshade family.nightshade vine

Aside from its lineage and shape, the tomatillo has little in common with the tomato. The plant is shrub-like; its stalk and side shoots not woody but fibrous. Unlike the tomato, the tomatillo has a shallow, compact root system similar to that of an onion—unusual for a plant that easily reaches the height of five or six feet. Because of its high acid content (PH 3.83 compared to a tomato’s 4-5  PH) a raw tomatillo has a tart, lemony taste. tomatillo huskThe fruit or “berry” grows inside a leathery husk, swells until the husk splits, a sign the tomatillo is ripe for the picking.

I especially welcome tomatillos in the garden for two reasons: first of all, the plant is extremely charitable as a volunteer. Because of the mass of seeds (seeds are the shape of a sesame seed but smaller), each fruit contains, tomatillo seeds from the windfalls around each plant--you can’t use them all--are spread throughout the garden by tilling and are most likely to sprout just about anywhere (three healthy plants are sharing the space with the cucumber vines in this year’s garden). Because of their shallow root systems these brazen intruders are easily weeded out.packed with seeds Sometimes they sprout in a convenient place and can be left there until maturity. Because they transplant well, some I dig and plant in a more suitable location. The fact of the matter is…plant one tomatillo plant, raise it to maturity, and you’ll not have to plant more next spring. For the sake of experiment I’m thinking about loosening up my pitching arm and chucking a few windfalls to various parts of the garden just to see how many tomatillo patches—and where-- sprout next season.

The principal reason I like tomatillos, however, is because they are  immune to LATE BLIGHT!Salsa verde

Tomatillos make wonderful salsa verde. Because of  the fruit’s unique, lemony flavor, I make a point of including a couple dozen in my tomato sauce and salsa. In this household our favorite tomatillo recipe is called Aztec Pie, a Mexican-style lasagna in which baked tortilla chips replace the pasta. Ten tortillas, cut pie-shaped in eighths and baked until brittle make up the two layered beds. Two baked chicken breasts, diced, are spread evenly over each layer of chips. The tomatillo sauce replaces the traditional tomato sauce, and combined with a “soup” of sour cream/milk (poured separately) over each layer of chips, then sprinkled liberally with “Mexi-cheese.” The entire casserole is mounded off with feta cheese and then baked. No need to visit a Mexican restaurant the night you serve up Aztec Pie. Again, the entire dish is built around the tomatillo sauce. If you are a fan of Mexican food, consider the following recipe:

1-1/4 pounds fresh tomatillos, stemmed, husked, and rinsed

1 cup reduced-fat and sodium chicken broth, divided

2 to 3 fresh serrano or jalapeno chilies, stemmed and chopped

1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped

2 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (Note: I’d double the cilantro)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (any coarse salt will serve)

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1. Bring a pan of water to boil, add tomatillos and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes. Drain and either blend or food process. Add 1/2 cup broth, 2 chilies, onion, garlic, cilantro and salt. Blend well but leave some texture [use blender’s pulse function for chunkier salsa]. Add another 1/2 cup broth. Taste and add another chili if necessary (Note: for more heat per bite, substitute serrano peppers for the milder jalapenos).

2. Heat oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add sauce and bring to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally,15 minutes or until lightly thickened. Taste and add a little more salt if needed.

(Yield: 2 1/4 cups). Suggestion: for a chewier Aztec Pie I’d recommend doubling the tomatillo sauce recipe; a pint of sauce per layer results in a softer texture; if you want crunchy, stick with the above recipe.)

Recipe from “Cocina de la Familia” by Marilyn Tausend with Miguel Ravagotomatillo sauce

I’ve shared the recipe. The tomatillos are up to you…remember, you only have to plant them once.

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