- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Tomatillos are indigenous to the New World and have been a staple in the Mexican kitchen since Aztec and Mayan times. Use them in celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

They are the basis of all kinds of green salsas and mole verdes and, lucky for the cook, their availability is becoming more widespread all the time. Another plus: They are sold fresh all year.

Although the name suggests they are a kind of tomato (tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish), they are a different vegetable altogether.

Tomatillos are members of a group of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a papery husk. They are related to plants such as the ground cherry and the cape gooseberry, as well as the inedible ornamental garden shrub known as the Chinese lantern.

Typically, the tomatillos we find in the market are sold somewhat under-ripe, with a bright green color under the husk. As they ripen, they typically become more yellow and sweeter. Raw tomatillos have a bright, lime and citrus flavor with a bit of astringency — the quality that causes our mouths to pucker a bit.

They are great in just about anything we would enhance with a squeeze of lime or lemon. I love adding a few paper-thin slices to salads. In particular, they add a nice balance to buttery avocado-based recipes. I chop up a little to add to guacamole and love them in the fresh tomatillo and avocado salsa recipe that follows.

When you cook tomatillos by either roasting or simmering, the sharp astringency softens and they take on a gentler flavor.

To roast tomatillos, remove the husk and give them a gentle rinse to wash away the stickiness that coats the skin. Place them on a baking sheet with a rim and roast them under a hot broiler about 4 inches from the heat source. Roast for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they are blistered and splotchy brown with, maybe, a few black spots.

Turn them and roast in the same manner on the other side. The rimmed baking sheet will contain the delicious juices that result from the collapsing tomatillos. Use this as the basis for my simple breast of chicken with roasted tomatillo sauce.

Simmering tomatillos also mellows the flavor.

Fresh tomatillo and avocado salsa

This fresh sauce is great with grilled shrimp or meat.

1/4 pound tomatillos, husk removed, washed and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon seeded and chopped fresh serrano chili, or to taste

1 tablespoon chopped scallion

1 large ripe avocado, peeled and pitted

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a food processor, finely chop tomatillos, garlic, chili and scallion. Coarsely chop avocado, add to processor and pulse until just combined. Sauce should have a bit of texture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 1 cup.

Breast of chicken with roasted tomatillo sauce

5 tablespoons olive oil, plus some for greasing baking pan, divided

3/4 pound (8 or so) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

1 medium jalapeno or 2 serrano chilies

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1½ cups chicken stock

2 teaspoons brown sugar

½ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, divided

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 8- to 10-ounce bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves

Crema (Mexican sour cream) or crumbled queso fresco or feta for garnish, optional

Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet or baking pan and roast tomatillos and jalapeno or chilies under a hot broiler, 4 inches or so from the heat source, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they are blistered and splotchy brown with, maybe, a few black spots.

Turn them and roast in the same manner on the other side. Cool, then transfer tomatillos and jalapeno or chilies to a food processor or blender along with any of the juices on the sheet. Puree until smooth.

Meanwhile, over moderate heat in a heavy bottomed sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Raise heat to medium high, add tomatillo puree and cook until sauce darkens and is very thick, about 3 minutes.

Add stock, brown sugar and half the cilantro. Stir, reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes or so or until sauce is thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set sauce aside. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over moderately high heat in an oven-proof skillet large enough to hold chicken in one layer.

Add chicken, skin side down, and cook until skin is richly browned, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook on bone side for two minutes or so. Remove chicken from pan and pour out all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add tomatillo sauce and bring to a simmer.

Nestle chicken pieces, skin side up, in the sauce, place in preheated 375-degree oven and bake for 15 minutes, or until chicken is cooked. (Check with point of a small knife near the bone to make sure chicken is cooked through.) Place one piece of chicken in each of four shallow bowls, spoon sauce around, top with crema, queso fresco or feta, if using, and sprinkle remaining cilantro over. Makes 4 servings.

Tomatillo, poblano and heirloom bean chowder

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium (1 pound) sliced yellow onions

2 medium (½ pound) stemmed and seeded fresh poblano chilies, cut in large dice

1 tablespoon finely slivered garlic

2 cups (3/4 pound) husked and quartered tomatillos

½ teaspoon whole fennel seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)

2 cups petite diced canned tomatoes with juice (Muir Glen brand preferred)

7 cups rich clear chicken or vegetable stock

1½ cups cooked favorite heirloom beans (see note)

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

In a saucepan, heat olive oil over moderately high heat. Add onion, poblano chilies and garlic. Saute until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomatillos, fennel seed, cumin seed, oregano, tomatoes with juice and stock. Simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes.

Add beans and cinnamon; bring to a simmer to heat through and season to taste with salt, pepper and a few drops of lime juice. Stir in cilantro just before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: You can use whatever bean you like. I love tocamares chocolate, gigande or Christmas limas for this soup.

Good mail order sources for heirloom beans are Phipps Country Store (visit www.phippscountry.com); Vanns Spices (www.vannsspices.com), and, my favorite, Purcell Mountain Farms (www.purcellmountainfarms.com).

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