The tomatillo, or husk tomato, is a relative of the common tomato native to Latin America, where it is still popular in cuisine. It has been cultivated for thousands of years, and the plant were introduced to Europe after the conquest of Central America. Tomatillos were widely accepted in Europe as an exotic, flavorful fruit that enhanced a wide number of dishes. They are sometimes difficult to find in conventional markets, but they are usually available in Hispanic grocery stores.
The plant is an annual, growing as an upright leafy bush in the nightshade family. The fruit is green, sometimes with purple streaks, and enclosed in a papery husk. Often, the husk will split as it reaches ripeness, although this is not necessarily a desired trait. Usually, tomatillos are brought to market with husks on, although consumers storing them should remove them for longer refrigerated life. With their husks removed and proper refrigeration, the fruit can last up to two weeks.
When picking out a tomatillo at the grocery store, shoppers should look for a fresh looking husk, rather than one that is brown or wrinkled. The fruit, if it can be felt, should be firm to the touch, and those that are soggy or discolored should not be purchased. If the grocery store permits it, consumers can peel the husk back to check the color as well.
Tomatillos require growing conditions similar to tomatoes, including warm weather with several hours of sun each day and moist soil. They can be grown from seedlings, which should be planted after the last frost. Because of the wide variety of climates in Latin America, the fruit is available year round in some markets, if customers are persistent. The fruit is best when it is still green and has not yet burst the husk, and more mature yellowing fruits are often extremely soft and sweet.
The fruit can have a refreshing, crisp flavor that is an excellent complement to salsas and other Mexican dishes. They can either be eaten raw or briefly blanched in a pan until their skins burst, creating a smooth sauce to work with. The tomatillo is also rich in vitamin C, making it nutritious in addition to delicious. Chilies complement its cool flavor very well, and they can be mixed as a sauce and fresh coriander for a simple salsa.
Some gardeners use it as an ornamental plant, because the striking husked tomato can be quite attractive. If used ornamentally, the fruit should still be harvested and eaten or given away so that it doesn't make an unsightly mess of the ground below the bush.